arabic or chinese?

Before Ostler’s own ideology—entailing a fanciful technological determinism—takes hold of his argument, The Last Lingua Franca is wide-ranging and insightful. He is on firm ground when he uses historical examples to question the future of English as a global language. He shows repeatedly how governments abolish even well-established lingua francas “at the stroke of a pen” for ideological reasons. An especially neat case is the relegation of Persian both in India under British rule and in Central Asia after the Russian Revolution. For the British, this was as simple as changing the language of the courts, on the principle that “justice should be comprehensible to those being judged” and not just to the Persian-speaking elite. In the new Soviet republics of Central Asia, the lingua franca was edged out on the grounds of ethno-linguistic self-determination. The revolutionary government drew up the borders of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan according to the language spoken in each region, and raised literacy in these from less than 10 percent under Tsarist rule to almost 100 percent by 1959, at the expense of Persian. Given how easily a language can be dethroned, Ostler does not share the optimism of David Crystal, David Graddol, or Robert McCrum, in thinking that, in one form or another, English will “find itself in the service of the world community for ever.” Historically considered, English has little chance of outlasting the economic and military dominance of Anglophone powers around the world. Emerging powers will remain loyal to their mother tongues and will be unlikely to “indulge the nostalgia of their Western suppliants by speaking to them in English,” as Ostler puts it, contemplating with special glee the decline of the language in which he is writing.

Yet one could be forgiven for entertaining the thought that massive media saturation—in radio, television, movies, pop music, and above all the internet—has brought English to a point of no return. Of course, this way of thinking has its own technological fallacy: it implies that English has achieved the linguistic apotheosis denied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or Persian, by virtue of faster electronic communications. The major insight of Ostler’s book is that technological innovations can have unexpected consequences. In the last ten years, the fastest growing languages online were Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, in that order. “The main story of growth in the Internet,” he reminds us, “is of linguistic diversity, not concentration.” And there is a startling parallel with Latin and the print revolution. At first, it looked as though printing would ensure Latin’s pre-eminence, making standardised textbooks widely available. In practice, the new technology mostly benefited the vernaculars, feeding a demand for novels and pamphlets among the expanding middle-classes.

via The New Republic.