Isn’t everyone learning English?

This week, we return to answering the questions I was most asked while I was last in the US.

It is natural to think that everyone is learning today’s world language, English. When I travel, I mostly find people who speak English. It has been assumed that the Internet would result in everyone learning English.

World languages graphicAbout 560 million people speak English as their first language, as this graphic shows. Estimates of the number who speak English as a second language range from 375 to 600 million. It is important to note that most of the people who speak English as a second (or third, or forth) language have no intention of making English their primary language. They may speak it at work, but not at home, with their friends or when shopping, for example.

Microsoft blogOne would think that modern technology would be a force for people to learn English. But some technological developments may be making it easier for people to keep their languages. Microsoft has a “Local Language Program” which seeks to produce versions of its Windows operating system in more and more languages. One can download a free “language pack” Windows which includes African languages such as Hausa, Sesotho, Swahili and more.

According to a 2012 report from Common Sense Advisory (CSA), in 2009 it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it took 48 languages to reach the same percentage. CSA also indicated that the “English” slice of the Internet language pie is getting smaller each year. Since 2009, English is down from 48 to 36 percent. Figures just released by MIT indicate that only 1/3 of tweets on Twitter are in English. These trends call into question the assumption that the Internet will cause everyone to learn English.

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

English is the official language of Ghana. If you are in Accra, it will seem that everyone speaks English. Elsewhere, it is a different story. Most Ghanaians who speak English learn it in school, not at home. According to UNESCO, 42% of children attend secondary school. Even if we assume that all of those graduate and therefore speak good English (both are very generous assumptions), then 42% of young people in Ghana speak English competently. That is after 60 years of spending a good part of the budget on education.

So, is everyone learning English? Not even close.

But even if  they were, that might not be a good thing for faith in Christ. For a millennium, Latin enjoyed the place in Europe that English now has in the world. It was the language of government, church, education and commerce. But the church stagnated during that time. The translation of the Bible into the languages of the people was part are overcoming that stagnation. Researcher Patrick Johnson, Editor of Operation World, has written:

The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity

Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society has come to a similar conclusion. She writes:

Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

It appears that the lesson of history is that when one language becomes widespread, like English or Latin, that is good for government, commerce and even the church as an organization, but not for true faith.