Let's speak in English, s'il vous plait

Predictably, the French were furious. A national commission looking into the future of the French education system recommended last week that English, which it called 'the language of international communication', be made compulsory in French schools, and the usual suspects erupted in outrage. It would be the final surrender, an acceptance that English had definitively replaced French as the international language.

Most of the world thought that this battle ended about 50 years ago, when America emerged as the new superpower. English had been gaining ground on French since Britain replaced France as the reigning superpower more than a century before, and the rise of the United States pretty well settled the issue. Except in France.

It is hard losing an advantage that your country has enjoyed for a long time, but the French just went into denial. Some 97 per cent of students in France study English at some point, but there is little official pressure to learn it well. This has a serious effect on France's ability to compete in international business, and the commission was merely suggesting a remedy.

Foolish commission. It should have known. Politicians and intellectuals queued up in the French media to denounce its members as defeatist.

The dominance of English is merely a transitory thing, they argued, and should not be pandered to. Typical was Jacques Myard, a member of parliament for the ruling UMP (Union for a Popular Majority) party, which announced: 'English is the most spoken language today, but that won't last.' Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish would become increasingly important, he predicted.

Is this just wishful thinking, or is it really the shape of the future? Size matters: no language has ever risen to become the regional or global lingua franca without having a lot of speakers and a powerful state behind it. But once a language has achieved that dominant position, it is such a useful device for international intercourse that it does not necessarily fall into disuse when the power of its original speakers declines. One thousand years after the Roman empire was overrun by barbarians, educated Europeans were still using Latin to communicate with one another.

The US does not face the fate of Rome, but it will be less of a force in the world in 50 years' time than it is now: other economies are growing much faster, especially in Asia. It helps, of course, that India, which is destined to be the most populous nation of all, already uses English as a lingua franca within its own borders to cope with the multiplicity of other official languages. If there is more business to be done, many more foreigners will take the trouble to learn Chinese, Arabic and Spanish than do so at the moment. But nobody is going to learn them all: everyone will still need a common language, and it will still be English.

Over the past 20 years, the switch to English as the first foreign language taught in schools has accelerated worldwide. In the former communist countries of eastern Europe, it has replaced Russian, and in Russia itself, English is now obligatory in the schools. More recently, it has been made compulsory in Chinese schools. To the intense irritation of the French, it has even become the de facto working language of the European Union.

An avalanche has occurred, and avalanches are irreversible. A globalised world needs a common second language, so that Peruvians can talk to Chinese, and Hungarians can communicate with Ethiopians. It is an accident of history that the dominant global power was English-speaking at the time when this need became apparent, but the investment that hundreds of millions of people have already made in learning the language guarantees that this accident will have permanent results.

However, it does make the French very cross.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist