A Russian, a Korean and a Mexican walk into a bar. How do they communicate?

In English, if at all, even though it’s not any of the trio’s native languages. You can swap out those nationalities for any others hailing from different continents and the answer will remain the same. Swap out a bar for the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China, and the attending heads of state from those three countries still have to communicate in English: it’s the only official language of APEC, even when it gathers in Beijing.

Mark Zuckerberg recently scored some public relations points for Facebook during his own visit to Beijing when he engaged in an audience question-and-answer session by speaking reasonable Mandarin. The sight of one of America’s leading entrepreneurs speaking to a Chinese audience in its own language sparked talk about whether China’s economic rise means Mandarin could someday rival English as a global language. Don’t count on it. Fluency in Mandarin will always be helpful for foreigners doing business within the important Chinese market, much as a mastery of Portuguese will give you a leg up in Brazil. But Mandarin poses no threat to English as the world’s bridge language, the second tongue people turn to when communicating and doing commerce across borders.

Thanks to the British Empire, native English speakers are strategically sprinkled across the globe, from the British Isles to North America to East Africa to Southern Asia and down to Australia. Beyond that, it is the native language of shared popular culture—even sport. England’s Premier League, with its cocktail of international stars and global television reach, has a more widespread fan base than any other national league (soccer is the one form of global pop culture not dominated by the United States).

And English is undeniably the language of the technologies connecting us all together.  Most languages don’t even bother to coin terms for things like “Internet” or “text” or “hashtag,” appropriating the English tech-speak instead.

It’s little wonder that an estimated 2 billion people will speak functional English by 2020, the vast majority of them having learned it as their second language.

English, we should not forget, is an inherently neutral language. There is no gender in English as there is in Romance languages. There are no class or generational distinctions baked into the language, as there are with so many languages that feature different forms of you with different verb conjugations—the deferential you (boss, elder, stranger) versus the familiar you (friend, subordinate, child).  Ours is a radically egalitarian and modern language, and it is simpler and more direct as a result.  English also lacks the tonal nuance of some Asian languages, where a shift in tone can change the meaning of a word or phrase, or the complexity of grammatical declensions that drive students of Latin, Greek, German or Russian to despair.

English is also more politically neutral than we often think. And any relative decline over time of America’s global power and influence will actually help, rather than hurt, the cause of English worldwide, further decoupling people’s perception of the language from their perceptions of the United States and its influence.  English is associated with freedom.  There is no major power systematically censoring English content on the Internet or blocking access to opposing world views.  Even Islamist jihadist propagandists would concede that English is a convenience in spreading their word.

The French—whose language was the last viable alternative in the race to become the world’s lingua franca—are understandably sore about the triumph of English. But even French companies have had to fall in line, accepting English as their organizational language.  In what amounted to a telling parody of modern France, one grievance underlying a recent Air France strike was the airline union’s anger at the adoption of English as the default language for internal communications across its global operations.

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable, for linguistic, economic, cultural and political reasons.  For starters, the language is just too hard for outsiders to attain fluency in it at least for outsiders who can’t devote themselves full-time to memorizing thousands of characters over a number of years. Then there is the inconvenient fact that Mandarin doesn’t hold sway throughout China; it isn’t even predominant in some of the more dynamic, outward-looking parts of China, like Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

It’s true that China’s domestic market is becoming more important by the day, so Mandarin is becoming more important to those who want to succeed in that market. But China’s global aspirations will make it complicit in English cross-border dominance.  Its own emerging multinational companies will discover, as European and Japanese ones have before them, that they have to adopt English as their business language to succeed beyond their home market.

The cultural incentives for mastering Mandarin aren’t great either.  Whatever its economic and military might, China’s soft power is notoriously weak.  Sadly, the People’s Republic is seen as a trendsetter in all the wrong ways—quashing dissent, blocking speech, insisting on conformity and subservience.

Indeed, resistance to any claim the Chinese language may have for global status may be strongest in the country’s own neighbourhood, where nations nervous of China’s intentions are eager for continued American engagement and are comfortable with English as their bridge language.  Year after year, the PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveys show that people in nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and Japan are far more comfortable with America than with China as regional superpower. And so, again, it’s no accident that English is the only official language of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations.

This cordon sanitaire containing China’s cultural (and if it comes to it, military) expansion is one of the lesser appreciated dynamics of today’s world, one that augurs well for the cause of the English language and American cultural influence.  All the hype surrounding China’s rise to great power status can make us lose sight of the fact that what we could call the “China adjacent region”—the crescent encompassing Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the rest of Southeast Asia and India—far surpasses China in population and economic power. So don’t expect Chinese to take on English for global preeminence.

Yet the global reach of English should not be a cause of despair for those of us with a different mother tongue. I admit to ambivalence at English’s undisputed dominance. I grew up in Mexico, speaking both Spanish and English (the latter at home, thanks to an American mother). I love Spanish, and how it connects me to my heritage, a large swath of the western hemisphere and an important slice of US life as well. It’s important to me that my son learn Spanish too.

So native English speakers should hold the triumphal, jingoistic music. This is not a cue for everyone to abandon their native language. The spread of English simply means that more and more people around the world are bilingual, as they operate in both their native language and the world’s lingua franca. Spanish will thrive in the US as the second, unofficial language, just as French will continue to be defended and promoted in Canada as an official one. It is more important than ever for young North Americans to learn other languages if they want to thrive in a global economy. If all you speak is English, it’s going to be hard to stand out—everyone else will soon speak it too.

And if we follow that rich linguistic path, the tentacles of English will not be something to be feared but rather will be seen as neutral turf, a way for people from different languages and cultures to understand one another, a way for that Russian to argue with his Korean and Mexican friends about soccer.

Photo: Shutterstock

Andrés Martinez
Andrés Martinez is editorial director of the Los Angeles-based ideas exchange Zócalo Public Square, which is where a version of this column first appeared. He teaches journalism at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter at @andresDCmtz.

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