Who Understands What, Why, How and When? Language Constantly Changes.
Of the thousands of languages that exist in the world,1 only a few hundred are spoken by at least one million people. The top three languages by the number of native speakers are Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish. Languages are living, breathing organisms, constantly evolving and, as such, some are expanding and are some contracting. Languages are the bread and butter of professional translation services companies and their language translation experts need to stay as up to date as possible of changes and linguistic tendencies.
Most professional translators try to keep up with the changes in the world of languages, but, as with any other field, predicting the direction of change is an impossible task. Besides being the second language by the number of speakers, English in general and the American or US variety in particular has been the de facto lingua franca for almost a century. Will English manage to maintain its relative importance in the future?
It is very hard to tell. As an old professor at school used to put it, a language is as important as the people who speak it. English owes its status to the importance and extension of the British Empire and later to the ascent of the United States, initially as a world power and later as the sole superpower, and as a scientific, industrial and technological powerhouse.
Few experts doubt that, just as it happened to Latin, the day will come when some other language or group of languages will replace English as the de facto lingua franca. The question is when it will happen and what language or languages will take its place. Predictions are very hard to do. I still remember my university colleagues who decided to specialize in Russian during the 80s only to suffer a major letdown after the end of the Cold War. Something similar happened with the Japanese language in the early 90s. Many people were convinced that Japan would soon overtake the United States as the world’s only superpower and Japanese would replace or at least seriously challenge the status of English. Now, due to the dynamism of the Chinese society, the major contender seems to be Mandarin Chinese. Time will tell.
In any event, besides the natural decline of the relative importance of English-speaking societies, there are at least two major threats to the supremacy of the English language. One of them is linguistic nationalism, or the desire of many countries and regions in the world to defend and preserve their languages. Many of them have in place very strict language laws to promote the national language. The other major challenge is demographics. Birth rates in English speaking countries are generally lower than those in countries or societies with other languages.
We can now safely say that we are almost living a dual existence: the real world and the virtual world, or the world of Internet. It is interesting to note that to a certain extent the virtual world of Internet replicates the real world, as far as language usage is concerned. Most estimates indicate that English is the most widely used language by Internet users, followed by Chinese and Spanish. Not surprisingly, the ten languages with the most speakers cover more than 80% of the total number of internet users. Far from promoting uniformity, globalization, with its revolution on the availability of faster and cheaper transportation and easier communications, has created the opportunity for many languages to thrive. Easier communications and more readily available transportation mean that interaction between different linguistic groups will definitely grow.
Does the above mean that professional translators need to ditch English studies and start taking Mandarin Chinese classes? Not at all. It simply means that professional translators working for professional translation services companies such as ASTA-USA Translation Services, Inc. and its legal division, Legal Translation Solutions, need to stay current with the needs and requirements of the professional translation services market.
The most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of the Ethnologue organization (http://www.ethnologue.com), whose detailed classified list currently includes 6,809 distinct languages.