Have we just seen the beginning of the end of English?

By June 25, 2016Globalization

One way of looking at the outcome of the British referendum is to understand it as an act of self-sabotage:

Of course, this spectacular act of self-harming is more like a murder-suicide in that the damage done will not be contained to Britain and affect the rest of the world in ways that we cannot yet know but that look distinctly unpleasant for Europe and “the West”:

If Britain is self-destructing, what will happen to English as a global language? Have we just witnessed the beginning of the end of the global hegemony of English? Some have already started to question the role of English in the EU after the British will no longer be part of the union.

Let’s examine how other global languages have lost influence.

To begin with, for a language to rise to importance as a transnational language, it seems inevitable that its native speakers successfully pursue imperial expansion. That is how English spread and that is how other lingua francas acquired their status. However, history also shows that a transnational language does not necessarily go into decline with the decline of the empire that spread the language. Indeed, English has shown no signs of decline since the end of the British Empire in the mid 20th-century; on the contrary, global English language learning has gone from strength to strength since then.

When an empire dies, the language of the empire may simply cease to serve as a transnational language but may still serve as the native language of the group who used to be dominant. Obviously, English will continue to be used as mother tongue in England etc. even after its speakers have shot their own political and economic influence in the foot. What is interesting is whether speakers of other languages will continue to embrace English as enthusiastically as they have to date.

In his examination of the fate of lingua francas after the fall of their empires, Nicholas Ostler argues that their survival as transnational languages “depends on the successful renewal of the marketing campaign, implicit or explicit, that has supported its rise to currency […] the language [needs] to find itself another raison d’être” (Ostler 2010, p. 174).

(c) Axel Scheffler

(c) Axel Scheffler

Latin, for instance, saw its greatest triumph as a transnational language after the fall of the Roman Empire. Its continued success after the Romans proved themselves incapable of constructively addressing the population movements and socio-economic and military challenges of their time, depended on two consecutive new purposes: first, Latin became the language of the Catholic Church, which gave it a new lease on life as a transnational language of religion for almost two millennia. Second, from the Renaissance into the 19th century Latin also served as a transnational language of education and higher learning in universities across Europe and beyond.

Persian provides another example: after Iran fell to the Arab invasion, Persian became the language of the army that spread Islam into Central and South East Asia, and was then taken up by Turks, Mongols and, in fact, all Muslim rulers of the region as the administrative language of their realms.

Latin and Persian thrived as transnational languages for well over a millennium after their native speakers had lost military-political and socio-economic clout. In the end, Latin as a transnational language faded away before the ascendancy of national languages. The end of transnational Persian came more abruptly as the administrative structures of Central and Southeast Asia were dismantled by the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century.

What does this mean for transnational English after Brexit? English has already been repurposed as the transnational language of multinational corporations and international business. So, we have not seen the beginning of the end of English as a transnational language and it may well thrive for a long time to come.

What we have seen is another nail in the coffin of native speaker supremacy. Native speakers have just chosen to make themselves even more irrelevant to the story of English.


Ostler, N. (2010). The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel. London: Penguin.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • David Marjanović

    How did you manage not to mention the word America once? That is where the influence of English has been coming from for the last 70 years. England has long been hardly more relevant than New Zealand in this respect!

    I’m a biologist. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking place. All my publications so far have been in English. How come? Because the USA has the greatest number of my colleagues and the most research funding, making the English language the easiest way to be understood by the greatest number of people.

  • Hi David,
    No one can doubt that US imperialism also had a major role to play in the spread of English. However, while the US have not declined as much as GB, it has probably passed its zenith, too. What I was asking is what happens to a language that has spread with empire after the empire (or, in this case, two empires …) goes into decline.

    I think you are mistaken as to why global scientists publish in English: if the greatest number of colleagues speaking a particular language were the main reason, you’d be publishing in Chinese; or, at least, we would see a transition to Chinese as the language of science. That is not happening because the numbers of non-native speakers of Chinese are relatively modest.

    The numerical advantage of English at the present moment is this: the number of people who speak English as an additional language and use it to communicate transnationally (such as yourself) outnumber native speakers five times (ca. 400 million native speakers vs. ca. 2,000 million L2 speakers). I’m arguing that, as Anglophone core countries become increasingly isolationist, L2 speakers will become not only the quantitative inheritors but also the ideological possessors of English …

  • David Marjanović

    “if the greatest number of colleagues speaking a particular language
    were the main reason, you’d be publishing in Chinese; or, at least, we
    would see a transition to Chinese as the language of science.”

    Apart from inertia, we would indeed be seeing such a transition, and you’re right that we’re not. But I think this has different reasons. Existing speakers of (any kind of) Chinese are clumped geographically, while English was already scattered widely before science became monolingual (again); China has only invested serious amounts of money in science in the last few years; and the limiting factor in learning enough Chinese to read (let alone write) a scientific paper is the writing system. If you don’t sit down every day and write a line of every character you know, you’ll forget most of them pretty quickly; and you need more characters for reading a scientific paper than for reading a newspaper. So, as you say, China invests in teaching everyone English instead. (At present, a lot of science is actually published in Chinese and hardly gets out of China.)

  • Christopher

    Another point: while the Chinese government does promote the Chinese language overseas, would it really want it to become a “World Language”? That would imply, given currently scholarly and artistic norms, the existence of an autonomous academic and artistic sphere, free of major political interference. I doubt they would want that. So, either Chinese doesn’t spread as World Language or those scholarly norms change to disallow serious discussion of “sensitive topics” (for the Chinese government now: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen)

    I would analogize with the CNY, the Chinese currency. The government will often make noises about “internationalizing” the Yuan, which produces breathless articles about “End of the US Dollar/Empire” and such. They do so because it signal the (re-)arrival of China as the preeminent power of the world. But to do would mean giving up control of things like the USD-CHY exchange rate and such, something that the CCP is reluctant to do.

  • taki

    339mn native EN (4.52%/7.5bn and falling).
    Up to 1bn inc L2. The other speakers that learned the language but hardly use it, I think are not counted.

    It was estimated that EU (& the world) would save billions/year if Esperanto was used.
    Isn’t this the right time to refocus on Esperanto as much more effective solution?