The future is multilingual

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
David Graddol dipped into several languages including French, Swahili and Swedish while studying sociology at York University, but he does not describe himself as bilingual. Even so he has become something of an authority on multilingualism and, as globalisation became topical, on English as a global language.

In 1997 he came out with the often-quoted The Future of English, a crystal-gazing book about the predominance of English in the world and the rise of other "global languages". The predominance of English was unassailable, he predicted then. Almost a decade later, in English Next* he raises the alarm that English has become too successful. English spoken to near-native levels by second-language speakers recently surpassed the number of native English speakers. English has become a basic skill rather than an add-on. "The UK's best defence is to learn other languages," he argues.

In The Future of English, Graddol developed several scenarios and models to predict which languages would emerge as the most important. One of the most important for job opportunities was likely to be Mandarin Chinese. Spanish and Arabic were also languages "of the future", while French was in decline. In the 1990s major companies shifted their manufacturing to low-cost developing countries, which had fewer implications for language dominance. Now they shift high-end operations to countries like India and China.

Technology is increasingly being transferred. High-end video technology, for example is coming out of China. "What happens when all these skills are in China?" he asks rhetorically. "In many Asian countries there is a sense of urgency about the need to acquire Mandarin because of the rapidly growing economic importance of China," he says. Unlike a more insular Japan when its economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s led to a rush to learn Japanese, but one that was hardly encouraged by Japan itself, China is using its language to project itself internationally. It is promoting Mandarin as a foreign language throughout Asia as well as in other major countries, including Britain. Confucius institutes to promote Chinese language and culture have been set up in Seoul, Washington and Nairobi and are planned in London and Edinburgh. China is also acquiring stakes in companies all over the world as a way of projecting its power. The number of people speaking Chinese as their first or second language is over one billion compared to half that number speaking English worldwide.

But David Graddol also warns that we should not go overboard on one language or another.

"The important thing is not to try to spot which is likely to be the strategic language to learn but to get away from the monolingual mindset.

Find the language children are motivated to learn. Mandarin is becoming more important. But not every child in the UK is able to learn Mandarin. My idea is a classroom where children in the same class are learning Mandarin, Japanese, French or Italian at different rates. If we can manage a classroom like that, that would be the way to go."

l *David Graddol: English Next (British Council, 2006)

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