Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

03 May 2011

Looking Past the Point of Origin: The Future of Language and Its Evolutionary Implications

“Language is the most accessible part of the mind. People want to know about language because they hope this knowledge will lead to insight about human nature” - Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language 

From USA Today: “Analysis: English won’t be sole language of the future”
Have you ever wondered what the future of language holds? Coming from the U.S., I’ve always thought that English would be the leading language for years to come. However, this is not the case. According to Yale linguist Stephen Anderson, English will become a second or even third language to many. Studies show that by 2050, “Chinese will continue its predominance, with Hindi-Urdu of India and Arabic climbing past English, and Spanish nearly equal to it.” The U.S., unlike many countries around the world, might not be ready for this. These other countries are already accustomed to multilingualism, while the U.S. is slowly catching up. In the future, people will be expected to be multilingual, and if they aren’t, they will have a hard time functioning in society. Whether it originated from “ding dong,” “pooh-pooh,” “bow-wow” or “ta-ta,” language has proven to be a major utility that humans need in order to survive.

Evolutionary Biology and Multilingualism
From The Wall Street Journal: “Being Bilingual Linked to Longer Life”
Important Quotations:
  • “A person who speaks more languages is likely to be more clear-minded at an older age, [Gitit Kavé] says, in effect “exercising” his or her brain more than those who are monolingual. Languages may create new links in the brain, contributing to this strengthening effect.
  • “Analyzing the results, the researchers found that the more languages a person spoke, the better his or her cognitive state was. A person’s level of education was also strongly associated with cognitive state, but the number of languages contributed to the prediction of cognitive fitness beyond the effect of education alone.”
  • “A future question for research, according to Kavé, is whether languages reflect an initial potential for prolonged mental fitness, or that learning and speaking more languages actually do something to the brain over time.”
What does this say about future language evolution? Hypothetically speaking, perhaps a neuronal mutation will arise and be subsequently selected for in one or more human populations, giving those individuals with multilingual prowess an evolutionary advantage. You never know.

From Science: “The Future of Language”
“The world's language system is undergoing rapid change because of demographic trends, new technology, and international communication. These changes will affect both written and spoken communication. English may not be the dominant language of the future, and the need to be multilingual will be enhanced. Although many languages are going extinct, new ones are emerging in cities and extended social group." - David Graddoll, "The Future of Language"

“The Demographic Future”:
One cause of this could be that the world’s population grew greatly throughout the 20th century, especially in underdeveloped countries. It has since been evaluated that the number of native speakers of the most popular languages at the end of the 20th century will be very different in 2050. For example, the article states that the number of native English speakers will drop from 372 million to 65 million. This could be due to the fact that the percentage of people who are raised with English as their first language is steadily decreasing. As the article states, “nearly 9% of the global population grew up speaking English as their first language, but that proportion is declining—toward nearer 5% by 2050” (Graddol). The four highest ranked languages, under Chinese of course, will likely have a relatively close total number of speakers in 2050 as there are now. However, the small-scale languages are the ones that are growing the most quickly.

“The Future of Diversity”:
Although it can be argued that around 6000 languages exist today, this article explains that around 90% of those are in danger of becoming extinct: “We may now be losing a language every day” (Graddol). So what does this mean for the future of language diversity? Losing a language can be seen as equivalent to losing an important part of culture, a small chapter of the story of the human race. But even as we lose these old languages, new forms of existing ones and possibly even new languages are forming around us every day. The article brings up the idea that “...the fast growing urban areas of the world are breeding grounds for new hybrid languages—just as hundreds of new forms of English have already been spawned around the world” (Graddol).

“The End of Modern Languages”:
This section explains that we may soon lose what we have come to term “modern languages,” which have been formed over centuries of grammatical and linguistic development: “...the whole modernity project may now be unraveling, taking us into new linguistic landscapes” (Graddol). Old ways of speaking, 16th century Shakespearean English for example, is becoming less and less functional in our everyday speech. Language, especially English, is becoming more “destandardized” due to an influx of international communication. “Written language now much more closely reflects the norms of speech. Dictionaries include the latest slang expressions because they appear in newspapers” (Graddol). As our priorities change, so does our language and what is considered “true and proper language.”

“A Multilingual Future”:
Contrary to a popular belief that began in the 19th century, English will not become the one language spoken by the entire world. It will, however, influence the way the new world of language will be formed in years to come. Instead of speaking only one language, future generations will likely be multilingual. This change is already beginning to take shape in Europe and America. Many European countries begin teaching their children to speak English in elementary school, and most adult students and professionals are expected to speak English in addition to their native tongue. In America, scores of immigrants from Mexico speak both Spanish and English in their day-to-day lives. In the future, English will not be the sole language spoken by the world, but it may be one of many.

“Future of Grammar”:
The future of grammar textbooks may be perilous, seeing as grammar as we know it may become obsolete in years to come. For hundreds of years, grammar, especially within the English language, has posed a huge problem to linguists. It is so complex and changes so often that no linguist has ever been able to create a comprehensive grammar of any language. Because grammar is so hard to understand, future generations may do away with it. Grammar’s function within language will instead be replaced by word patterns and the rhetorical structures they follow.

“Future of Texts”:
With the future will come a change in the way language is both written and read. New technology has made written information become shorter and less regulated, and has incorporated other forms of media as well (i.e., pictures, color, sound and kinetics). With these changes comes a change in availability of complete texts to which the average person has access. Full texts may become so scarce that most people will not even be able to understand them, having been instead used to reading a far more fragmentary, informal version of the written word.

“Will the Future Understand Us?”:
Because language is constantly evolving, there is no guarantee that future generations will be able to understand the messages we leave behind. In fact, according to a prominent American semiotics specialist, there is no way of transferring important information in a way that people in the future will definitely be able to understand. Instead, generation after generation will have to update any dated texts into the modern language so information can continue to be passed on from the past to the present.

That's all for now. We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog. Stay tuned for Spanish and Portuguese translations of all our posts! ;)

“Analysis: English won’t be sole language of the future” (USA Today)
“The Future of Language” (Science)
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language: chapter 13: “Mind Design,” p. 419 (print source)

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