The talk of the global village is ... in English

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am


The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that English would be the 'most respectable language' in the world and the most read and spoken. It is destined 'to be, in the next and succeeding centuries, more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age'.

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely 1per cent of the world's population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams' prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, has just announced that, from 2014, most of its courses will be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university's rector, Giovanni Azzone, simply replied: 'We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.'

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere - and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. A huge shift is under way.

The choice for a single lingua franca has fallen on English because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.

Most people learning English will never become fully fluent but, over the years, some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.

No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist