There was a study conducted by an investment bank in 2014 which suggested that French is the world’s fastest growing language. The study found that, in 2010, Mandarin was spoken by 10% of the world’s population, English was second with 8%, Spanish 6% and French at 3%.
But this is forecast to change by 2050, due to the projected population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is a Francophone area. So it’s projected that there’ll be 750 million French speakers in the world by 2050, with Mandarin being spoken by 8% of the world population, and also French at 8%. Spanish is expected to be at 7% and English reduced to 5%, due to slower population growth.
"English is on a plane far beyond any other language in terms of influence and reach. It’s the lingua franca for aviation, academic publications, pop lyrics, law, economics and diplomacy."
But you have to put that in context. In terms of employment prospects, English is still the world’s global language. Of the 195 countries in the world, 67 of those have English as their primary or official language, and in 27 more English has secondary status. In 2006, it was estimated that there were 400 million native speakers of English in the world, and 4,000 million second language speakers of English. We should also add the 600 to 700 million speakers who use English as a foreign language – so they’re not fully competent in the language, but have some level of competence. Hence, over 1.5 billion people know English to some degree. And English is on a plane far beyond any other language in terms of influence and reach. It’s the lingua franca for aviation, academic publications, pop lyrics, law, economics and diplomacy.
From a historical perspective, the global use of English is a legacy of the influence of the former British Empire. This was the biggest empire the world has ever seen, with around 25% of the world’s population and 23% of the world’s territory controlled from London, at its peak in the early 1920s, shortly after the First World War.
And when the US caught up with and surpassed, the UK, as the world’s dominant economy, following the Second World War, the importance of English continued to grow, especially in the light of American cultural exports such as movies, music and TV. So there are historical reasons why English has become the world’s global language.
"If you’re already a native English speaker, then which other language you should learn to best improve your job prospects depends on which geographical area and also which sector you want to work in."
If you’re already a native English speaker, then which other language you should learn to best improve your job prospects depends on which geographical area and also which sector you want to work in. So potentially, languages to learn might include Arabic, Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin – and possibly Russian in the future, depending on how their economy and influence continues to develop.
There are also the consequences, in a European context, for the continued significance of English. Whatever form Brexit takes, and what the effects are on the UK workforce, will affect how important other European languages become, in terms of whether British employees will need to speak European languages in order to conduct business in continental Europe.
Vyvyan Evans is the author of The Crucible of Language: How Language and Mind Create Meaning.