What are the globalizing trends of language? That’s the question Louis-Jean Calvet asks in his book called Les langues: quel avenir? The French linguist describes the world of all languages as one that holds a gravitational pull towards English, closely surrounded by a small group of “big languages” — Spanish, Hindi, Arab, French among others—and another two hundred languages farther removed from the centre. Gravitating around them, there are another two hundred languages or so, to finish the outlying of the system with more than six thousand peripheral languages! Yes, there are more than 7,000 languages all over the world.
We don’t need to be experts to predict what is evident: the more a language is at the boundaries of the model, the more threaten of disappearing. But, can we somehow prevent this reality? Is it even worth trying? Will English become “the language of the world” or is it already? Can the “central languages” such us Mandarin, Spanish, or Arab overcome English?
And who controls these changes? Governments through languages politics? Linguistics? Teachers? Speakers?
Indeed, these questions are now more relevant than ever, when English gains prominence not only among speakers but also International Organisations like EU and UN even. The answers, however, are complex. It is an interesting way to exercise some self-reflection because, whether you like or not, we contribute to the language system.
Take a minute and consider what language you’d choose if you start learning a foreign language next month. (Since you are reading this article probably not English …) Somewhat predictably it would be one of the “super central” ones: French, Spanish, Arab, German, Italian, Mandarin etc. In fact, the reasons behind our choices and our children’s choices are enough to keep up the status quo of the language “market,” as Calvet calls his “gravitational” system.
Louis-Jean Calvet published Le marché aux langues, Les effets linguistiques de la mondialisation in 2002. After a revision with the author in 2017, it was re-published for CNRS editions Biblis under the title of Les langues: quel avenir? Les effets linguistiques de la mondialisation.