13 Nov '17
The Future of Languages: The Next Century and Beyond
In January 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by John McWhorter titled What the World Will Speak in 2115. He identified key trends and made several predictions, chief among them that many languages will die out within one century, and that the number of spoken languages will decline from 6,000 at our present stage to 600 or so within the next hundred years. He based this assessment on the fact that many languages are already in the process of dying out, due to a dwindling population of speakers, and a lack of active writing among those who speak lesser known languages. Just as with culture, there is a natural process of selection which takes place, where languages evolve, discard certain elements and either simplify or grow more complex, making it more difficult for foreign-born speakers to acquire that language. Currently, roughly 4 billion of the earth's 7 billion people (nearly 60% of the global population), speak one of 30 languages as their native tongue. According to Ethnologue, one of the authoritative sources on language statistics, there are 7,000 languages being spoken or in existence at the present time.
If we follow McWhorter's logic, other factors such as urbanization, technology, and global commerce will lead to shrinking diversity and greater homogeneity of languages, as people seek to identify the best means of communication for their wants and needs. According to his essay, many parents already perceive their native languages as an obsolete or backward means of communication in rural areas or among minority groups, who may wish to preserve their language, but wish for their children to have economic opportunity and to speak the language that will open doors and increase their chances for prosperity. Besides the disappearance of many languages, his other main prediction is that the languages which remain will generally become less complicated than they are now, a streamlining effect, particularly in spoken form compared to how they are written.
This linguistic trend of homogenization fits within the larger trend of globalization. The drive to compete, to produce and earn a living is eclipsing all other activities, and the modern pressures of life are having an impact on the global application and development of languages. As McWhorter succinctly states: “…the world is witnessing the birth of lightly optimized versions of old languages.” This lean and utilitarian approach to languages may spell extinction for those which have a dwindling number of speakers, culturally and economically swallowed up by the more dominant language groups. It remains to be seen whether this culling of languages will foster greater understanding among the nations and peoples of the world, or whether it means the loss of linguistic heritage and diversity.
Only time will tell.