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The End of English?

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A couple of provocative posts (Post 1 and Post 2) by Don Osborn have revived some thoughts I've been having about African languages and information technology. Don's posts have arrived at a good moment - the power here in Accra just went out for the eighth time today, but I've got about enough battery life to type some preliminary notes.

Don writes about the "long tail" and the economics of language. In sum (and without network, I can't scroll back through his posts), he is thinking about the question of "smaller" languages and how people who are born speaking them relate to their mother tongues from an economic perspective. Do people who speak these "long tail" languages feel the need to learn languages higher up the tail for economic purposes? Will such people abandon their mother tongues over time, in preference for a language that allows them to communicate with more people and therefore have expanded economic and social potential?

These are questions that I have long pondered in the context of Swahili in East Africa. Swahili is very high up the tail. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million speakers throughout East and Central Africa, it is spoken by about as many people worldwide as German, roughly one out of 60 people on Planet Earth. Many of the languages of East Africa are endangered, and others are diminishing, with Swahili being the language of choice of many of those people who are drifting away from their mother tongues. I have witnessed rural households where the children are discouraged from speaking their ethnic languages in favor of Swahili, and thus cannot speak with their own grandparents in a common language (though they communicate fine, each speaking their preferred language but understanding what is said in the other).

Which is an odd way of arriving at the title of an article I've been bouncing around in my head for a while now, and only lacked the excuse of a power outage to start drafting. The article will be called "The End of English:" (not sure yet what comes after the colon). The point of the article is not that English is about to disappear at any time soon, but that we may have reached the peak of English's dominance as the international language of communication.

Let's start with the premise that English has been climbing as the language of choice in international communication. There cannot be much doubt about that, even among Francophones who sincerely regret the trend. One way to look at the trend is to assume that use of English will keep sloping upwards, as it has for the past decades. What is to say, however, that we are not at the top of an English bubble, and that we will soon witness English predominance falling swiftly? "Past performance is no guarantee of future results" surely applies as much to language as it does to the stock market.

Now let's ask who has been coming to the English fold, and in what manner. People from around the world are learning English, no doubt. But the question is, are they learning English as a language of daily use, or are they learning it purely for transactional purposes? If the former, then they are likely speaking it at home, and passing it on to their children. If the latter, however, all the work they put into learning English will be only one generation deep. Their children, who will grow up speaking the local language (be it Chinese or Chichewa), will have to study English in school, and put as much value and effort on the task, in order to develop similar competence in the language.

Why would the children of today's "economic English" speakers - those who only know the language enough to help in their quest to make a living - also choose to speak the language? Only because of the economic advantages that they perceive. In a moment I will argue that those advantages might soon wither. But first, let's consider another category of English learners, who we might call "entertainment English" speakers. These are people who come to English through films, TV, and music. Perhaps they are singing along to Tracy Chapman lyrics from 20 years ago while eating fufu and red-red in Ghana (to grab a moment from a lunch last week), or perhaps they are young Danes watching the latest action flick and playing video games. As long as the media to which they are exposed remain in English, "entertainment English" speakers will have a strong motivation to have a working familiarity with the language.

So imagine what happens if entertainment is suddenly available in local languages, and imagine what happens if economic transactions can suddenly be performed without the intermediary of English. I don't actually have to imagine, because I live in Switzerland, where the major languages are German, French, and Italian. My city, Lausanne, is in the French part of the country. In order to survive, I need French. English won't do it; maybe one person at the grocery store will speak enough English to tell you whether they stock peanut butter (they don't). When I turn on my TV, I can watch Hollywood movies - but they have been dubbed into French or German. When I click on a website for any national store, I can find locations and product info in French or German or Italian, but not English. Sure, a lot of people want to learn English in order to work in international corporations, but most do not need it for their daily economic or entertainment lives.

A few factors make it possible for French speakers to exist in their French world, and German speakers to exist in their German world, and not need English or any other language to make it contentedly through their lives. One factor is national policy to promote the language, and another factor is education in the mother tongue. I would argue that a third factor is technology.

Consider those web sites in German and French. The fact is, neither the people who coded the websites, nor the people who wrote the content, nor the people reading them, have the least need for English. (Unless you consider "a href='' target='_blank'" to be English, in which case the programmers need a very limited technical vocabulary in the language.) Most Swiss can purchase a computer, load an operating system, install all their software, and use the machine and the web forever without needing to venture into English. If they happen across a website that is only in English, they can take advantage of (babelfish in a google skin) to give a rough-and-ready translation. As machine translation improves, the web experience will be more and more seamless in languages like French and German - even sites that were written entirely in English will seem to the Swiss to be written in choppy but understandable versions of their own languages.

Those movies that are dubbed in French are another demonstration of technology conquering language exclusivity. Until now, dubbing has been a game for rich countries. France dubs, for example, while Romania merely subtitles. The economics are self-evident: to subtitle, you need to pay a translator, while dubbing requires a translator AND attention to lip movements AND voice actors AND a technical crew to match sound to motion AND you need to maintain the sound effects (car doors slamming, teapots boiling) in the process. Dubbing is expensive... and I remember the amount of money I spent on a computer 10 years ago that I couldn't give away today, and the law that technology doubles in speed and halves in price every 2 years, and think that it won't be long before Romania will be dubbing its movies. If Romania, why not Kenya? If Swahili in Kenya, why not Ga in Ghana? Especially if there is software to aid in the translation process, and in the process of matching sounds to lip movements?

The technology barriers are dropping. African languages are still years away from having the level of IT availability that major European languages see as their right, but that doesn't mean that they never will. 12 years ago I wrote an article speculating about the seemingly unimaginable proliferation of cell phones in Africa, and today they are absolutely everywhere. 12 years from now, will Africans be using computers in their own languages, and listening to movies from Nigeria or Bollywood or the US, dubbed in their own languages of preference? There is no reason to think the technology won't get to the point where this will be possible, as long as the people who are working on these issues keep the ball rolling.

It is much easier for a few people to teach a computer how to speak a language than for the millions of speakers of that language to learn how to speak to a computer in another tongue. It is also easier for a few people to translate a movie into 2000 languages than for the billion people who speak those languages to learn the languages coming out of the actors' mouths. Let's add a third IT feature - voice to text, and text to voice. The day is not too far off when you can talk into your computer and the machine will recognize what you say and reliably convert it into text. We also have good working examples of computers that can read written text and speak it out coherently. Combine those technologies with an intermediary translation system, and we can easily picture the following chain:

1) I speak English, and my computer converts what I say into English text.
2) My English text is translated by machine into another language
3) My translated text is read aloud by the computer in that other language.

Voila, I can now communicate in real time with someone who does not know a single word of my language! Sure, the translations won't be perfect, but they will be good enough for me to order a product, or negotiate a contract. And suddenly, the person on the other end does not need English. They don't need it for economic purposes, and they don't need it for entertainment purposes. This means that they are even less likely than before to speak it at home and to pass it on to their children. Perhaps the children will choose to study English in school, but perhaps they will instead choose to study the language of a neighboring people with whom they could engage in profitable non-technology-mediated business, or their own mother tongue if that is not their local language of education.

English won't die any time soon, but I suggest that it might begin to lose its predominance, and that drop-off might come a lot more quickly than most people assume.

Meanwhile, although I haven't decided what comes after "The End of English:" in my article title, we have certainly reached the end of my battery. I welcome your thoughts in the comments section."


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