Imagining the Internet Project
  Responses in reaction to the following provocative future scenario were assembled from a select group of internet stakeholders in the 2006 Pew Internet & American Life/Elon University Predictions Survey. The survey allowed respondents to select from the choices "agree" or "disagree" or to leave the scenario unanswered. Respondents were encouraged to provide a written elaboration to explain their answers; they did not always do so, but those who did provided richly detailed predictive material. Some respondents chose to identify themselves with each answer; many did not. We share some - not all - of the responses here. Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are shared below are attributed here only for the purpose of indicating a level of internet expertise; the statements reflect personal viewpoints and do not represent their companies', universities', or government agencies' policies or positions. Some answers have been edited to share more respondents' replies. This is a selection of the many carefully considered responses to the following scenario.  

descriptionScenario Two:  English displaces other languages...
In 2020, networked communications have leveled the world into one big political, social, and economic space in which people everywhere meet and have verbal and visual exchanges regularly, face-to-face, over the internet. English will be so indispensable in communicating that it displaces some languages.

Compiled reactions from the 742 respondents:
42% agreed
57% disagreed
1% did not respond

Below are select responses from survey participants who preferred to remain anonymous. To read reactions from participants who took credit for their comments, please click here.

There may indeed eventually be a global language, but it won't be English.

This is already the case for global knowledge workers and elites, and will continue, although indigenous languages will continue to serve more mundane purposes.

English will only be necessary for those who seek to communicate across those boundaries and those populations might increase, but they will not obliterate the nationalist tendencies of languages.

If information exchanges and interactions are to be globally ubiquitous they have to employ a universally accepted and used language.

This presumes that the United States continues to be the dominant political, economic and military force on the planet. International backlash in the last four years has resulted in more foreign students abandoning the language for Asian and Eastern European languages.

Today, I am always surprised when I hear English spoken by people in Africa, Russia, South America. In 2020, it will be THE international language of communication and business.

This has no chance of happening. The Internet affects culture; it doesn't transform it

It pretty much already has!

The English language will change and absorb words from other languages at a faster rate than it has for the past 100 years.

Not only English. There will be a division of five major languages used.

There will be a flourishing of languages such as Chinese, enabled by the net, not dissolved by it.

The general cacophony will continue, and if anything, a text-message "pidgeon" language will evolve as a common language, just as something like that does in African nations with many different languages.

It will not displace Chinese, even if the world conducts communication and business in English.

By 2020 initiatives will be underway to have other languages play a more relevant role online. Individuals around the world will be able to access content and communicate in their own language thanks to near-instantaneous translation services that exist.

Improvement in language translators will make this less of a problem.

Yes, however, a few other languages will also be quite common - Chinese and Spanish, probably.

No, English will be the second language of choice, but people will continue using their own languages.

The internet is driving more people to use English. This has been the case with America's technical leadership and probably now equally important, entertainment leadership that is becoming increasingly digital and transportable. India's emerging technical leadership will help reinforce this trend.

It is utter folly to suggest such a utopian vision of the future (or dis-utopian, as the case may be). There will be shifts in the languages used - and some less frequently spoken languages (like, say, Hungarian) will largely disappear. We may also see more multi-lingual individuals.

English will be indispensable for global communications but with the increase in localization of software and user interfaces as allowed by Open Source Software and other internationalization efforts. Local or regional languages won't disappear and may in fact strengthen. You will see an increase in the "glocalization" trend.

The era of the English-focused internet is over. English is convenient as a last-choice/common way of communication, but most people prefer to communicate in their own language. Internet makes it easier.

Yes, English will displace some languages for some people, but groups will be formed to create islands of language (Francophonie group which includes non-French speaking countries too). Also some languages will emerge - like Spanish, Chinese and Hindi - on the Internet.

English is already displacing some less widely spoken languages, and it is indeed the lingua franca of computing. However, there are other factors to consider in this analysis. There is wide support for languages other than English on the internet. Consider Google's social networking site, Orkut. The Orkut team was surprised to discover that a large percentage of their users hailed from Brazil, and these users communicated on the site almost entirely in Portuguese despite the fact that the user interface was in English. As they discovered, users adapt technology for their own purposes, and this includes making it linguistically accessible. Many current software programs have an option to render the user interface in the user's native tongue. Further, as machine translation technologies improve, language barriers will become less imposing. Finally, it should also be remembered that while English is currently the default language of the internet, the number of people who speak Mandarin Chinese is double the number of people who speak English worldwide. As China continues to expand its efforts to achieve international competitiveness in science and technology, it would not be farfetched to think that Mandarin Chinese would maintain a foothold in global communication.

I doubt that you will see English become the official language of China anytime soon.

English will be very significant. But language is cultural. To say that it displaces another language is to say that it displaces culture. The internet has given a new lease on life to the Welsh language as the Welsh diaspora have connected online. The internet empowers minorities. They may be minority in a physical location, but when they are connected they become a sizeable number. So it would not surprise me to see minority languages strengthened in numbers and use.

Linguists can provide better statistics/evidence one way or another - but it is probably rather true that English will become an increasingly important language in an increasingly multi-lingual world.

English will continue to move forward as a global language but new technologies will also emerge that allow fluent communication between people who do not share a common language.

English will not culturally trump other languages to the point of extinction, by 2020 or even far after that. English will become more prevalent as a second language, and we in the U.S. will become more multi-lingual.

English has become a language of common use used not only in academic surroundings and science, but it also has been able to penetrate dissimilar and far away cultures, such as the Chinese. This makes of English the natural language of this area to communicate and serve as a bridge to transport the knowledge and know-how of science and technological advancements.

Just read the statistics. English is becoming less and less important the more people join the Internet. There is nothing inherently bad or worrisome about this tendency. Only 8% or so of the world population speak and read English (let alone write it). Should we somehow condemn this reality?

This has already started to happen. The use of one language to conduct business internationally will be the norm. Local languages will remain important within national borders but to communicate with the rest of the world, especially in business, standardization - most probably through software - will become a crucial element in the success of an enterprise. I doubt that translation software will be perfected to enable use of different languages by 2020.

Other nations want to keep their languages, and they are growing faster than we are.

English is important, but so is Chinese (it will be used by most people online) and Spanish. I believe more in online, real-time translation software.

English will be the dominant language in the Internet, and it already has and will also in the future continue to influence other languages. However, this is not only due to the Internet but also in general due to Hollywood, PCs, and other material (books) in the English language and the fact that people who speak English are more globally mobile and generally more educated. However, the local languages (even small ones) have an important cultural and national importance. In addition, the education level especially in developing countries is not at the level where English is universally spoken or understood. On the contrary, there will be more localized content to attract local markets.

English will not be indispensable, but I do agree that it might displace some languages - but none of the major languages in use today.

So long as nationalism continues to be, if not on the rise, then at least stable as a powerful social force, I don't foresee this at all. Although in a sense English already "displaces some languages" in particular contexts, it is highly unlikely to displace them on a non-political or non-business level.

English has occupied the position that cannot be changed in the next 20 years, whatever the global situation.

Chinese is the dominant language today, and by 2020 that is certain to be reflected across the network infrastructures.

English will be a minority language on the Internet - Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic will be the four significant languages.

English will grow as the predominant universal language, but at the same time the Internet will allow people with niche cultures and languages to find each other and thrive.

While we'll see an increase in the use of other languages, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid English as a common denominator.

Virtually everyone in the business world will be obliged to have English as either a first or second language, however, society as a whole will not have universally adopted it. Nor will English have displaced any broadly spoken language.

Hindi or Chinese might be the dominant internet language by then.

The role of English has only gone down over the past decade. Maybe it's time for us all to learn Mandarin. That would make sense.

Local languages and cultures will continue to show resilience. There will be a backlash. English at a low level will spread wider, but indigenous languages will be just as indispensable.

It has often been said that a language is a dialect that has its own army. Just as languages often spread through conquest, English will continue to spread through economic conquest. Not that English-speaking countries will necessarily rule, but the need for ever-bigger markets will force consolidation into those languages which already have the most speakers. English will be one of those languages, but not the only one.

English currently dominates the internet; that will continue to decrease irrespective of the fact that English will continue to grow as language of science and education. The Internet will become much more language diverse!

English will be dominant. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is likely to be true.

It is the common language today. Educational systems are designed to teach English today. There is nothing to change the course. Not even China.

Not likely. One word: China.

Obscure or less-prevalent languages will survive because of the internet - but English will dominate the operational aspects of internet life and other languages will suffer as a result.

English will be a lingua franca, but will not displace many languages; rather, English-only speakers will be second-class citizens in these communities (e.g. Chinese speakers).

English will continue to be dominant but it will not - and should not - displace all other languages and social variations.

English will be dominant, but there's a strong case for languages surviving, too. I don't think Chinese and Japanese will change.

English will be the dominant language for online communications, but will not displace other languages. On the contrary, the importance of main languages in China (Mandarin, Cantonese), India (Hindi), as well as Arabic may increase significantly.

This is actually contrary to observed trends. The availability of the network for low-cost communication has enabled minority language communities to connect and remain vibrant in ways that were not possible when relatively small numbers of speakers were geographically dispersed. English may remain as a dominant language of inter-cultural exchange, but that does not eliminate intra-cultural exchange in any way.

The unification will only affect the rich countries. And even for them, electronic communications will continue to be hindered by physical factors. What we witness at this moment is the opposite: a growing linguistic diversification on the Internet.

I generally agree with this statement within the first world, but there will always be a need to have support for other languages worldwide. There will always be people who are not English-language-literate. While more and more people will be economically incented to speak English, I do not think any language will be displaced altogether.

Chinese and English will tie for first place.

Emphasis on "some" languages.

The availability of advanced translations tools will have a more significant impact in the pervasiveness of Internet than the English as a lingua franca.

Chinese will rapidly displace English, which in turn will displace French and Arabic.


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