By Copper, John F.
The Futurist , Vol. 48, No. 2
There are around 7,000 languages in the world. Some experts say the number is larger; others, lower. All languages are being challenged by modernization and globalization such that their futures are very different from their pasts--and very different from one another. To make sense of this looking forward, the world's languages may be put into one of three categories.
One category is the disappearing languages. According to National Geographic magazine, one language disappears every 14 days. Most experts anticipate that half of the languages in existence today will be gone by the end of the century. Earthday projects 90%.
This process has been going on for some time. Of the more than 500 languages spoken in North America before the Europeans arrived, more than half are now extinct. More than 300 languages in gi India have disappeared in the last 60 years. In 2003, the U.K. newspaper The Independent reported that 90% of the languages on the planet have fewer than 100,000 speakers, and more than 350 languages have fewer than 50 speakers. British ecologist William Sutherland has shown that languages are becoming extinct faster than animal species.
The languages that are currently disappearing are mainly languages that are not written, are spoken by only a small number (usually declining) of people, or their demise is not being noticed. They are being affected more immediately than other languages by the rapid changes going on in the world.
* Those who record their endangered spoken languages are saving some from extinction. Writing dictionaries and grammar books also preserves them. This, however, depends on someone taking an interest and having the time and money to do it.
A second category of languages are those that are declining in use in business and science. These languages are also waning rapidly in importance overall, and there is little or no chance that they will ever become an international or universal language.
Included in this group are the languages spoken in countries with small populations. Some are modern and well-to-do countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and most other European countries. In these countries, educated citizens and especially those employed in commerce or science and technology cannot rely on their own languages to pursue their professions. They must gain fluency in a more important language. Speakers of these languages also find there are few books, movies, and other cultural enjoyments in their languages.
This category also includes some larger countries, and even countries where the language has been recognized as one of the official languages by the United Nations, such as French. French is not used widely anymore in business or science. Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Japanese, and German all fit into this group, as well, though their fading utility and importance is not so apparent.
Some of these languages even boast a growing number of speakers or retain a special importance in some ways. Arabic, for example, is important to those in the oil business, and its speakers are sought by various national intelligence agencies. Spanish and Portuguese are essential to do business in Latin America.
Some of the languages in category two will fade from usage much faster than others. But all lack the potential to grow to become what some call a commanding language.
The Languages of Tomorrow
The third category of languages includes those growing in use in business and in science and technology. There are only two: Chinese and English. For this reason, Chinese and English may be called essential or vital languages. They will be the critical or universal languages of the future.
One unfortunate--but hardly surprising--effect of the global spread of information technology is that humanity is communicating far more, but seemingly with much less linguistic diversity than we were just a few decades ago. …