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Future of English: three things you need to know

Roughly 2.3 billion people speak English as a first or additional language, but with the rise of AI and the increasing market share of other languages, what lies ahead for the world’s most spoken language?

Photo: Unsplash

Part of the British Council's research involves assessing the 14 predictions made by linguist David Graddol in 2006.

The British Council is currently in the middle of establishing a long-term research agenda into the future of the English language covering its global uses, needs, and demands, as well as the forces driving them. Inspired by the British Council’s latest landmark publication ‘The Future of English: Global Perspectives‘, here are three things you need to know about the future of the world’s most spoken language, according to the experts.

1. English is set to retain its position as the world’s lingua franca

Part of the British Council’s research involves assessing the 14 predictions made by linguist David Graddol in his 2006 publication ‘English Next‘, which included him forecasting the decline of English as a world language.

“His prediction, I don’t believe, came true, and I don’t believe it will,” said Barry O’Sullivan, head of assessment research and development, British Council.

“The massive growth of the internet continues to show how important the English language is.

“We see that Chinese is improving its share of the market but my own prediction… is that [English] has gone beyond a tipping point by now that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for another language to enter that stage at that same level.

“I don’t see a threat to the English as a lingua franca coming from another languages, I see it coming from technology,” O’Sullivan however acknowledged during a webinar with The PIE.

2. AI is not going away, it can help advance the English learning experience, but it’s far from perfect and won’t replace teachers

“[AI] is a huge area, I think it will continue to grow, it’s the genie out of the box, it’s not going to go back in. We have to find ways of dealing with it. In terms of English language itself, it will change the way we use language, the way we generate language,” said O’Sullivan.

“We see a lot of benefits in terms of efficiency, we should be able to create tests that are shorter and that are more focused on specific constructs, for example focused on specific types of language – engineering, medicine etc.”

O’Sullivan, editor of The Future of English: Global Perspectives believes that AI is the “most likely” route to personalisation of assessment and learning, but also highlighted its benefits for the agility of design and development.

However, there are many limitations to AI systems, said O’Sullivan, noting issues with copyright, originality, bias, and accurate and reliable scoring.

Despite its continuing development, O’Sullivan is firm in his belief that there remains a strong need for English language specialists because “without that we are in danger of allowing AI to essentially steal the language”.

“It fills me with horror to think that anyone would think that English language teachers are going anywhere or should be going anywhere. They are more important than ever,” said Mina Patel, assessment research manager, British Council, an co-author of the book.

Teachers who refuse to see their need to change will become the new Jurassic

“Technology is not going to go away, learners are learning a lot on their own in private spaces, online, and I think education systems need to respond to that in a very agile way, very quickly, in order to marry the more formal systems with the more informal learning systems,” said Patel.

In order for that to happen, Patel says “teachers are key” and must be better supported in order to fully exploit the technology’s benefits to the classroom.

“Teachers who refuse to see their need to change will become the new Jurassic. They will become the dinosaurs, and they will disappear,” said O’Sullivan, adding that teacher trainers and policy makers too need to understand that teaching is going to change.

“If we lose teachers as the central part of our education systems, we risk losing the education system,” he added.

3. There is a growing need for an employment focus in English teaching, learning and assessment

“As English has become more of a dominant language of business around the world, it has become more of a focus of education systems,” said O’Sullivan.

The British Council carried out global roundtable discussions – made up of policymakers and policy influencers – to discover potential trends and drivers throughout the English language. Approximately 92% of roundtable participants said that English was (very or quite) important to secure a job in their country.

“However, educations services, pay lip service, in my opinion, to a lot of that thinking in that they tend to stay with their very traditional routes… Education in general is quite a traditional area,” said O’Sullivan.

“We need to get away from learning the knowledge of the English language to learning how to use it and in what context. A lot of people will come out of school or even university, armed with English and a certificate, but they won’t be able to use it in a business setting.

“We need to learn more about what the specific aspects of language that people will need to use… rather than know. We all know that when we use language, it’s about developing connection with your speaker, it’s not necessarily about speaking in an absolutely accurate way all the time.”

In the Americas roundtable – represented by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the US – stakeholders concluded that there is a move away from learners needing to show proficiency through test certificates for work.

Instead, they surmised that employee value the ability to communicate and hold conversations in specific work contexts.

They also recognised that different jobs require different skills in English and different levels of proficiency, highlighting that employees in important sectors in their country – such as tourism – have different skill priorities depending on if they work in the front- or back-office.

“If I’m learning English and go to work in Singapore, for example, then I need a variant of English that is to be understood – those other variants of English are not going to disappear,” Mark Walker, director of English and exams at the British Council, told The PIE in a recent interview.

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