One of the perks of dominating the world as a hegemonic power is that everyone aspires to learn your language. This was the case during the Roman Empire with Latin, the reign of French monarchs in the 18th century with French, and other notable empires throughout history. The world has recently developed an affinity for English. The second-most widely spoken language in the world, after Chinese, English is spoken widely in many foreign nations.
In Shanghai and Hong Kong, English is spoken by a large majority of the population, and a influx of Europeans are versed in the language as well. Working in Beijing, I saw the incredible value of speaking language as a non-native speaker. It presented business opportunities, aided communication between those from the west, and was a general indicator of sophistication and quality education. In fact some firms in China will even pay a hefty price for the perceived presence of a western executive to add to their company’s prestige.
A recent article in the Economist caught my attention immediately as it discussed the dominance of English in South Africa. http://www.economist.com/node/17963285 Throughout the piece it reiterates how dominant English is in South Africa despite the existence of 11 other official languages with ties to South Africa’s culture, history, and ethnicities. Even, “16 years after the advent of black-majority rule, English reigns supreme. Not only is it the medium of business, finance, science, and the internet, but also of government, education, broadcasting, the press, advertising, street signs, consumer products, and the music industry.” And while a majority of South Africans lack proficiency in the English language, “fluency in the language of Shakespeare is regarded as a sign of modernity, sophistication and power.”
While this tendency to study English is pragmatic given the U.S.’s supremacy, I wonder what lies ahead. Dozens of other languages dominated the globe throughout history only to be cast aside as empires declined. Will this be the case for English? In sixty years, will the majority of the world be versed in Mandarin?
The language that is universally spoken reflects its originating country’s global dominance and I am very curious to see whether the English language fares the global power struggles throughout the coming decades.