The fate of the lingua franca

A new book titled The Last Lingua Franca by Nicholas Ostler is raising waves across the world. Here's a Penguin review of the book, a must for those who assume a larger-than-life importance for English in the world, and Hindi in India:
'A lingua franca is a language of convenience. When it ceases to be convenient – however widespread it has been – it will be dropped, without ceremony, and with little emotion.' - NICHOLAS OSTLER

The Last Lingua Franca is a fascinating and provocative examination of the rise and coming fall of English as the world's language.

English is the world's lingua franca – the most widely spoken language in human history. But its dominance has so far lasted two centuries at most – far less than the spans of other major languages such as Greek, Latin, Arabic, or Sanskrit. And now, as historian and linguist Nicholas Ostler persuasively argues in his provocative new book, English stands not only to be displaced as the world's language in the not-too distant future, but also to be the last lingua franca, not replaced by another.

The primary causes for the spread of lingua francas over time have been empire (to bind peoples together politically), commerce (to facilitate trade), and religion (reinforcing the power of faith), and Ostler explores each inspiration through the lens of civilizations spanning the globe, from China and India to Russia and Europe. Three trends emerge that suggest the ultimate decline of English, and lingua francas themselves. Throughout the world movements towards democratization in politics or equality in society will downgrade the status of elites-since elites are the prime users of non-native English, the language will gradually retreat to its native-speaking territories. Moreover, the rising wealth of states like Brazil, Russia, India and China will challenge and ultimately overtake the dominance of native-English-speaking nations-thereby shrinking the international preference for English. Simultaneously, new technologies are allowing instant translation among major languages, enhancing the status of mother tongues and lessening the necessity for any future lingua francas.

Ostler predicts a soft landing for English: it will still be widely spoken, if no longer worldwide, sustained by America's continued power on the world stage. But its decline will be symbolic and significant, evidence of grand shifts in the cultural effects of empire.

The Last Lingua Franca is both an insightful examination of the trajectory of our own mother tongue and a fascinating lens through which to view the sweep of history.
As far as the reviews I have read go, the book does not seem to focus on the inherent utility of the world's diverse languages in the education and economic growth of their speakers. That, more than anything political or historical, will be the reason for the decline of the Englishes and Hindis of the world as lingua francas.

1 comment:

Janaki said...

Once America and other western Nations fall to India and China, popularity of English will go down but Hindi and Mandarin will rise. Already Hindification of India has done enough damage to non-hindi languages. Once India raises to dominate over the west, Hindi will take it's peek position and wipe out all non-Hindi languages until and otherwise non-hindi people are given a mass wake-up call.

World's richest repository of knowledge is available in English today. Unless we translate the best of the knowledge sources available in English to our own non-hindi languages, and impart them to our children in State Board Schools and make them outperform the CBSE kids in all aspects, there will be no change in the current scenario (where quality means running for schools that preaches English and Hindi)

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