I found this interesting article in my weekly Newsweek subscription yesterday. Basically, the author states that with China becoming a big player on the international market, you’d think that pretty soon we’d all have to learn Mandarin Chinese. You’re wrong! argues McWhorter. He claims that China will never replace English as the world’s leading language, as Mandarin is too difficult and the circumstances for English are simply more favorable. English is associated with print, literacy and the media which causes the language to gain staying power. English is associated with pop culture, movies, and America (even though that latter part may now be not so favorable).
For a big part I agree with McWhorter. English is a global language that seems to have the best cards to deal in the world of languages. However, there have been other empires in history whose leading position was swept away and with it its language. McWhorter addresses this problem in his piece, but disregards a huge and very probable situation. What if we no longer need English? Latin went to live on for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, due to it being the language of the church and later on, the language of science. This custom went on till well into the 19th century. However, for some reason English took over. No one knew how to speak Latin anymore, it took too much effort to learn and a social awareness came about where it was believed that getting education should be for everyone.
This is why I agree with McWhorter to a certain extent. He is right in the short term. In the long run however, English may very well be replaced by whichever language gains a dominant position. With a change of global economical power may not automatically come a change of linguistic power, but in due time a type of cultural change is much more likely to happen. Since culture and language seem to be naturally linked, if the culture changes, eventually the language will change too. It happened to Latin, so why not English?