The proportion of people who speak English as their mother tongue is falling fast - contradicting the 19th-century notion that one day the whole world would speak the language of the British empire.
In a study published today in the journal Science, David Graddol, an expert in the development of languages, calculates that by 2050 the number of native English speakers will have fallen to about 5 per cent of the world's population, from about 9 per cent in 1950. Nine years ago, English was second to Chinese in the number of native speakers, with 1.1 billion native Chinese speakers, and 372 million native English speakers.
But by the middle of this century there will be more native speakers of Hindi and Urdu, and the number of native Arabic and Spanish speakers will virtually match that of native English speakers.
The study also found that Chinese and Arabic could soon be chosen ahead of English by people around the world seeking to learn a second language.
Mr Graddol, who is managing director of a language consultancy called the English Company, based in Milton Keynes, suggests that while English "will indeed play a crucial role in shaping the new world linguistic order", its main effect will be to create new generations of people who speak two or more languages - one of which is likely to be English.
Neil Gilroy-Scott, the director of education at the English-Speaking Union, which promotes the use of English worldwide, said: "We would broadly agree with these conclusions. The implication is that we should really spend more time in this country learning other languages, and stop being a monolingual society."
Mr Gilroy-Scott added that English had become the bedrock of many global activities, including computing, science and air traffic control.
However, Mr Graddol noted that in each of those disciplines the language being used was a specialised slice of English. He also pointed out that in computing, companies such as Microsoft and Intel were hiring researchers in China who were publishing research papers in Chinese, to make them harder for rivals to understand. And air traffic control accidents are sometimes caused by native English speakers who fail to use the formal language of air travel.
Mr Graddol noted: "Employers in parts of Asia are already looking beyond English - in the next decade, the new 'must-learn' language [there] is likely to be Mandarin [Chinese]."
A wider change will be in the part that languages play in the daily lives of people. "Paradoxically, cities of the future will allow immigrant languages to survive," Mr Graddol said, since ethnic groups will be able to stay in touch with a linguistic and cultural base through television, telephone and the internet.
However he predicted that 90 per cent of the 6,000 languages in existence today could disappear through lack of use over the next century. "We may now be losing a language every day," said Mr Graddol. But, he added, as older, rural languages were lost, new urban hybrids could replace them. "Cities are places where languages mingle and where language change speeds up," he said.Reuse content