The Future of English

Here is a long but good text from an online course I am taking at University of Southampton. It is about the changes in English as a Lingua Franca and what to expect in the future.

What are your expectations Share with us.

A piece in the EL Gazette in October 2001 (p. 3) under the heading ‘It’s now official: English is hard’ announced: ‘you can now motivate your students by telling them that English is the hardest European language to learn’. It went on to report a study carried out at the University of Dundee, Scotland, which compared the literacy levels of British primary school children with those from fourteen European countries (Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark). Children with one year’s schooling had been presented with lists of common words in the mother tongue. It was found that all but the native English speakers were able to read 90 per cent of the word correctly, while the British children could only manage 30 per cent. The researchers concluded that the gap between the English-speaking children and those from the other fourteen countries was the result of difficulties intrinsic to the English language. And at a conference of the Spelling Society, held at Coventry University in the UK in June 2008, in which new research by the literacy scholar Marsha Bell was reported, the same point was made again, with English being described as the worst of all the alphabetical languages for children to learn.

Rather than ‘motivate’ learners, such difficulties could, if widely publicised, discourage them from attempting to learn the language at all. The difficulties divide into three main categories: orthographic, phonological, and grammatical. Spelling difficulties are of various kinds although all relate to the fact that English orthography can often not be predicted from the way in which a word is pronounced. There are, for example, several ways of pronouncing the sequences ‘ea’ (e.g. as in ‘bead’, ‘head’, ‘bear’, ‘fear’, ‘pearl’), and ‘ough’ (e.g. as in ‘cough’, ‘bough’, ‘tough’, ‘dough’, ‘through’, ‘thorough’). A large number of words contain silent letters, such as those which begin with a silent ‘p’ or ‘k’ (‘psychology’, ‘pneumonia’, ‘pseud’, ‘knife’, ‘know’, etc.), another group which end with silent ‘b’ (‘comb’, ‘thumb’, ‘limb’, ‘climb’, etc.), and a third with a silent medial letter (e.g. ‘whistle’, ‘castle’, ‘fasten’, ‘muscle’). Other problems are doubled consonants (e.g. ‘committee’, ‘accommodation’, ‘occasional’, ‘parallel’), and the spelling of unstressed vowels (e.g. the underlined vowels in ‘woman’, ‘persuade’, ‘condition’, ‘success’, ‘infinity’, all of which are pronounced as schwa in RP and many other, but not all, native accents.

As regards pronunciation, difficulties relate particularly to English vowels. Not only does native English have more vowel phonemes than many other languages (twenty in RP as compared with, for instance, five in Spanish and Italian), but it has a particularly large number of diphthongs (eight in RP) and makes extensive use of the central vowel, schwa, in unstressed syllables regardless of the spelling – as was demonstrated in the previous paragraph. In addition, many accent varieties of English including RP andGeneral American (GA) make copious use of weak forms in connected speech. That is, schwa replaces the vowel quality in words such as prepositions (‘to’, ‘of’, ‘from’), pronouns (‘her’, ‘them’, etc.), auxiliaries (‘was’, ‘are, ‘has’, etc.), articles (‘a’, ‘the’) and the like. There are also several other features of connected speech such as elision (loss of sounds), assimilation (modifications to sounds), and liaision (linking of sounds across words). All these aspects of English pronunciation conspire to make it more difficult both to produce and to understand than the pronunciation of many other languages.

Grammatically, difficulties relate very particularly to verb forms and functions. Firstly, English has a large number of tenses all of which have both simple and continuous aspect (present, past, perfect, past perfect, future, future perfect) and none of which have a straightforward link with time reference. Second, there are many modal verbs (‘may’, ‘will’, ‘can’, ‘should’, ‘ought to’, etc.) each with its own problems of form and function. Third, one of the most problematic areas for learner of English is that ofmulti-word (or phrasal) verbs such as ‘get’ (‘get up’, ‘get down’, ‘get on’, ‘get off’, ‘get over’, ‘get through’, etc.) and ‘take’ (‘take up’, ‘take on’, ‘take off’, ‘take out’, etc.). Each has several meanings both literal and metaphorical, along with complicated rules as to whether the verb and particle can or must be separated for an object, depending on whether the verb is classed as adverbial or prepositional.

Because of these difficulties, it would not be surprising if there was eventually a move to abandon English in favour of an international language with fewer complicating linguistic factors along with a slightly les obvious colonialist discourse attached to it (although we see strand 6 [in the book] for another possibility, i.e. that users of ELF will adapt English to suit their own lingua franca purposes rather than accept that they should acquire and use a native version). Spanish appears to be a major contender, with its simpler pronunciation, spelling and verb systems, and its increasing influence in both the EU and America. As Moreno-Fernandez and Otero (2008: 81) point out

The sum of native Spanish speakers and non-native Spanish speakers plus those learning the language gives a total figure of 438.9 million Spanish speakers according to the estimations based on the latest consolidated census information and on other sources such as the Cervantes Institute.

And according to an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (14 December 2001, p.23), ‘Spanish is … the second international language of business as its importance in the United States grows’. In Europe, there is a massive increase in demand for Spanish, with the number of people travelling to Spain and sitting Spanish-language examinations rising by 15 per cent a year, according to the Instituto Cervantes (Spanish equivalent of the British Council). In addition, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico are becoming increasingly popular tourist destinations, while the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language is spreading to many parts of the world. In this process, it is being ‘overtly promoted by the Spanish government as part of its aim to strengthen and enhance a pan-Hispanic community across the world’ as well as ‘a desire to consolidate a power bloc with some claim to compete with the overwhelming march of global English’ (Mar-Molinero 2006: 82). As Mar-Molinero continues, ‘[t]he Spanish language learning/teaching industry is thus a flourishing and expanding one’ and ‘whilst smaller in scale, in many senses it resembles the enormous EFL/ELT industry’.

Meanwhile, in the US there were found to be 50.5 million native speakers of Spanish in the 2010 census (see unit C1 [in the book]), making this the second largest L1 group in the US after English, and comprising almost a fifth of the total population. Already non-Hispanic whites are in a minority in California and there are also particularly large numbers of Hispanics in Arizona and Texas. However, it is not only a case of numerical increase: the US Hispanic community appears also to be experiencing ‘a resurgence of cultural pride and confidence’ (The Guardian, 8 March 2001, p.12), while politicians are beginning to pay far greater attention to the Hispanic community’s needs than they have done hitherto. Meanwhile, Latinos such as the Puerto Rican Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez have, respectively, topped world pop music charts and won important film awards, and still more recently, the Latin music of artists such as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Molotov has been achieving worldwide popularity (see Mar-Molinero 2008: 39-40).

Further evidence that English may eventually give way to another language as the world’s lingua franca is provided by the internet. As Crystal (2006: 229-231) points out

[The Web] was originally a totally English medium – as was the Internet as a whole, given its US origins. But with the Internet’s globalization, the presence of other languages has steadily risen. In the mid-1990s, a widely quoted figure was that just over 80 per cent of the Net was in English.

However, as he goes on to say,

The estimates for languages other than English have steadily risen since then, with some commentators predicting that before long the Web (and the Internet as a whole) will be predominantly non-English, as communications infrastructure develops in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.

He also cites a 2004 Global Reach survey which found that 64.8 per cent of a total online population of 801.4 million was in countries where English is not the mother tongue, and notes that Chinese is expected by most sources to become the majority language of internet users. And a few years later, this seems even more probable. In a table showing the top ten internet languages at the start of 2010 (Internet World Stats 2010, in Crystal 2011: 79), although English still has the largest number of internet users (496 million users, 27.5 per cent of all internet users), Chinese is catching up fast (408 million users, 22.6 per cent of all internet users).

The rapid increase in the amount of Chinese on the internet (1,162 per cent growth between 2000 and 2009, as contrasted with English’s 252 per cent growth) leads Crystal to believe it will soon replace English in the leading position on the internet. On the other hand, Graddol’s earlier point that ‘there remains more English than is proportionate to the first languages of users’ (2006:44) is still true. In other worls, a large amount of internet use in English is by NNESs [non-native English speakers] rather than NESs [native English speakers]. And we cannot discount the possibility that a sizeable proportion of NNESs may continue to use English on the internet as well as, or instead of, their L1, especially for intercultural communication.

Thus, although it is possible that English-medium internet use has passed its peak, it is by no means certain. Meanwhile, the implications for both the spread and type of English used in other forms of communication are as yet far from clear.


Crystal, D. (2006) Language and the Internet. 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP

Crystal, D. (2011) Internet Linguistics. London: Routledge.

Mar-Molinero, C. (2006) ‘The European Linguistic legacy in a global era: linguistic imperialism, Spanish, and the Instituto Cervantes,’ in Mar-Molinero, C. and Stevenson, P. (eds) Language Ideologies, Policies and Practices. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mar-Molinero, C. (2008) ‘Subverting Cervantes: language authority in global Spanish,’ International Multilingual Research Journal 2: 27-47

Moreno-Fernandez, F. and Otero, J. (2008) ‘The status and future of Spanish among the main international languages: quantitative dimensions,’ International Multi-lingual Research Journal 2: 67-83

Further information

Jenkins, J. (2015) Global Englishes. A resource book for students, 3rd edition, Abingdon, GB: Routledge

Further free resources from ‘Global Englishes’ by Jennifer Jenkins

Find this book (with a discount of 20% for users of this course, enter codeGEFL1 at checkout) on the Routledge website

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