About five years ago I was on a university trip to China. In the course of the visit I had dinner with an elderly retired Chinese sociology professor, and in the course of the dinner he suggested to me that, within the lifetime of one generation, the main urban spoken language of China would be English. He pointed out that young people were emailing and texting and saying stuff on social networking sites in English, partly driven by the greater ease of writing in English on mobile phones. As it happens on the same trip I was a guest at a Chinese university student show performed entirely in English, with one of the students (who had never been outside China) telling me he had now read every one of the novels of Charles Dickens in the original language. How many UK students would be able to say that?
The fate of languages in an era in which international and intercultural communication is so easy is a subject of potentially interesting debate. As English strengthens its grip on speech and language everywhere, the effects are felt in the academy. In Scotland right now the number of students taking French in secondary schools for their Highers (equivalent of ‘A’ levels or the Leaving Certificate or SATS in the US) is dropping by nearly 10 per cent year on year, and German has become an endangered subject in UK universities. Minority languages are finding it particularly hard to retain a foothold anywhere.
Does this matter? Is it in fact the emergence of much greater international linguistic fellowship in which communication is becoming easier? Or are we losing cultural anchors that could disrupt and impoverish society? Or will languages actually stage a come-back?
The onward march of English is probably unstoppable, and perhaps the vehicle for linguistic cultural expression will in future be a rich regional variety of accents and dialects – which has long been a feature of English in the Celtic nations on these islands. But in the end it would be a pity of the indigenous languages that are often the source of these local enrichments were to be lost as living means of communication, and indeed not least as a means of communicating tradition and culture. How all this should be handled is something universities should address; and to that extent they should not lightly abandon the study of languages, or of any particular languages.