People whose first language is English are apt to be complacent about its pre-eminence. English is seen as indomitable – ruling the worlds of business, science and entertainment. Yet in The Last Lingua Franca, Nicholas Ostler serves up a bold corrective to Anglo-centrism and its familiar flag-waving myopia。
Ostler, a Briton who chairs the Foundation for Endangered Languages, opens with the provocative statement that “the decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment”。
Ostler gives an account of the fluctuating fortunes of other major world languages. In each case their majesty has proved fragile. For instance, the might of Persian, established over a period of almost a thousand years, was shaken to its foundations in just 16. If we imagine that the supremacy of English will endure forever, says Ostler, we are guilty of both “memory failure” and a “signal lack of imagination”。
Today, we’re told, English “offers an entry card to the world’s Executive Club”. But sceptics suggest that its prospects are tainted by its association with Britain’s exploitative past and America’s recent taste for political interventionism。
Worriers allege that the diffusion of English must lead to its break-up: it will develop in many directions, its various new forms in the end becoming mutually unintelligible。
Ostler contends that the future promises something quite different: a new linguistic world order, in which China, India, Russia and Brazil, increasingly dominant economically, will discover that they can secure their positions in the global marketplace without recourse to English. The international form of the language will evaporate, and English will revert to being spoken only in its native heartlands. Those heartlands will be less important politically and commercially。
Usually, anyone who argues that English’s position is insecure proposes that some other language – most likely Spanish or Mandarin Chinese – will supersede it. Yet Ostler takes the view that by around 2050 no global lingua franca will be needed. To a large extent, this will be thanks to technology, for example as improved machine translation will make more languages mutually accessible。
Yet while he writes with engaging crispness, at times the text becomes forbiddingly technical, and one can lose oneself in a thicket of thorny names and bristling verbiage。
Ostler’s arguments are cogent and alarming. Yet he leaves us with a salutary thought: while the world can today seem flat and homogenous, and while a language dies out every fortnight, many distinct tongues persist, and in them survives a rich miscellany of traditions, histories and nuances of human character。(Information derived from the network)

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