Speaking in Tongues

Michael Erard’s Flawed Take on the Future of English

Letters, by jmtimages, with Creative Commons licenceHistory has a habit of playing tricks on those who claim to see the future. Hindsight – that underrated ability to reflect rather than forget – makes easy mock of unquestioned presumptions as they fade into undignified obscurity. It’s common now to speak of English as the coming ‘global’ language, pointing to the multitudes who use it as their second tongue, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. Perhaps that’s why Michael Erard has a different take on the matter in the July issue of Wired.

Erard’s argument is that English, with a tightening grip on intercultural communication given the sheer diversity of its non-native speakers, will change rapidly to suit new circumstances. ‘Panglish’, or a global form of English with many linguistic influences, will emerge soon. This isn’t an original position – it’s been floating around the English-language media lately, with the Telegraph in the UK somewhat vaguely reporting a study mentioned in Scientific American last March. But Erard gives the Panglish line a little more substance, creating an important place for Chinese speakers of English in the change.

Writing first of English in the near future, Erard makes the unsupported claim that “by 2020 native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language.” You could well ask why that particular year and not any other – futurists do like nice round numbers.

And by what calculation did Erard reach the figure of 2 billion people? He gives no answer but the inclusion of those only learning the language is a clue. It’s a guess, nicely rounded up. To include learners, who might never have a fully practical use for the language, as bona fide non-native speakers is a little like including passengers as train drivers. Well, you could argue, they’re both using the same vehicle.

So it’s not a good start, and when Erard focuses fully on Chinese speakers of English the generalisations intensify. There are, he claims, 300 million such people – again without any indication of where the figure came from. Even in a conversational magazine piece, completely unsubstantiated references are unusual. But allow me to continue with the logic for a while. More than quarter of a billion Chinese speakers of English, reworking the language in specific ways, would certainly change it.

But standardisation on that scale seems very unlikely.

Prosperous, by Rescue Dog, with Creative Commons licenceConsider, for a moment, that there isn’t one but at least ten Chinese languages. In linguistic terms they’re so distinct that ‘dialect’ fails to capture the dissimilarities. We don’t even need to move on to dialects themselves to understand that each distinct native language will offer pronunciation and grammatical cues that create dissimilar interpretations of English. Do the ‘playful’ use of Chinglish in Taiwanese advertising and a Chinglish cultural exhibition here in Hong Kong last year point to the same phenomenon, as Erard claims, when the underlying language influences are different?

Probably not.

And, to move in a direction that Erard fails to consider at all, what about the simultaneous use of hybridised English and a more standardised version? Not every language adaptation is absolute.

English use in the Philippines, a populous nation of more than 70,000 million people, follows the dual path of a distinct Tagalog-English hybrid know as Taglish and a more standard form of English used when communicating with other non-native speakers. Taglish is a purely domestic meeting of two languages, with the flow of conversation undulating between the two, sometimes even within the same sentence, depending on the interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because Tagalog is already a second language to many, who speak one of the other eight main Filipino languages. In any case, linguists call this sort of thing ‘code-switching’, and it occurs in many countries to a greater or lesser extent.

Could the English used by Chinese follow the same path, becoming intertwined with one or more of the Chinese languages in purely localised code-switching rather than forming the basis for a utopian, cross-cultural Panglish?


We look to the future with uncertainty, by cheeseloaf, with Creative Commons licenceThe future makes fools of us all as we rush headlong into uncertainty. The only wise course is to mess with possibilities rather than wed ourselves to presumptions. One day we might all be speaking localised versions of Hindi. Or not. Only time will tell.

2 Responses to Speaking in Tongues

  1. Brian Barker says:

    Then what about the future of Esperanto!

    Did you know that eight British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008?

    You can check detail on http//:www.esperanto.net

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Brian, that’s an interesting thought – I should have mentioned Esperanto as a second language, given that it was actually designed to be learned as a second language. But I wonder – how many people speak it at the moment? I’m quite curious now that you’ve brought it up, but the site you mention doesn’t give an answer.

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