Q. Will the Web kill languages?

A. I studied at Universitaet Heidelberg (Germany). It’s the #1 German university. When I went to Germany in 1977, only a few students spoke English. Only two or three professors could speak a bit of English, and only at a low level. I did all of my university work in German (lectures, books, exams, thesis, etc.)

In the late 70s and early 80s, I was often in Paris, where people spoke only French. Even the person at the Information Desk at Gard de nord (the international train station) spoke only French. The same in Spain and Italy. This was good for me; I learned lots of languages quite simply because I had to learn in order to communicate.

Today, it’s entirely different in Europe. Everyone under the age of 35 speaks excellent English. Scandinavians speak English better than Americans.

How did this happen? In the early 90s, the European Union decided they needed a common language and they chose English. German, French, and so on are becoming local languages. All business, etc. is done in English.

I’ve been to China quite a few times. In Beijing and Shanghai, many young people speak English. I know many Chinese in Silicon Valley; the young who recently arrive speak excellent English. But if you go to west China (Sichuan, Chendu, Chongquin, and the smaller cities), nobody, absolutely nobody speaks anything but Chinese. I know government officials, heads of companies, professors, etc., and they speak only Chinese.

It is astonishing to realize that Europe switched to a common language in less than twenty years. Simply teach it at all schools, starting in the first years.

What about the US? Could it switch to Chinese? Yes, of course. The Europeans switched to another language. But will the US switch? No. There’s no compelling reason for US Americans to learn other languages.

In the last ten years, I’ve noticed educated South Americans (Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico) generally speak good English.

(By the way, English isn’t my first language. I speak four languages fluently and read another four or five.)

For the Americans, note that a hundred years ago, French was the global language of business, military, and diplomacy, even in the US. No more. Latin was taught at all major high schools. No more.

I manage global digital advertising campaigns for several very large organizations. For one, I use 17 languages; for another, I use 42 languages in 130 countries. But in both cases, English accounts for 90% of the traffic. English is the global language.

It’s nice to be able to live in one’s own language. But science, industry, medicine, business, etc. function better when everyone uses a common language. Germany, France, Italy, etc. had to switch to English to compete in the global market.

What about Arabic? Arabic is tied tightly to Islam and Koran (Allah spoke only Arabic, so Koran shouldn’t be translated). Which means Arabs who work in STEM use English as their work language. At University of Cairo, medicine is taught in English. This means English is the language of “the real world” and Arabic is the language of religion. Furthermore, there isn’t one Arabic language. There are lots of dialects and they often can’t understand each other. Although Iranians are Muslim, they generally can’t read the Arabic of Koran. I’ve had many close friends from various Arab countries. Although every Muslim reveres Koran, few actually read it. Just as Latin is the language of the Catholic Church, and see what happened to that (and yes, I studied Latin in high school).

I wonder about Chinese (I’m trying to learn Chinese). The Chinese have 1.2 billion people and a vast internal market. The Chinese sphere is large enough to maintain itself without the rest of the world. Or will we have a bi-lingual world, where people speak both English and Chinese? I live in Palo Alto where Chinese is taught in the schools. Spanish is the second language of California and Chinese may be the third language.

Look, I’m not promoting US English. More Indians speak English than the population of the US. More Chinese speak English than the population of the US. International English is the global language.

Will the web kill languages? A better question: will globalization kill languages? Absolutely. No doubt at all. For me, it’s not a question of studies, essays, national pride, etc. It’s reality: I’ve seen it happen. STEM is in English and if you don’t use English, you don’t use STEM, which means your country, province, city, culture, etc. will be left behind.