English is definitely the lingua franca of today. English-language schools are a boom industry, even though it seems that schools go under with alarming frequency. People travel to English-speaking countries in order to do language courses, or will incorporate a few weeks of English lessons into a larger trip.
This is great for the economies of the host countries, and good for the students as well. Learning English opens doors and allows communication not just with native speakers, but also with other second-language speakers. In fact, although English isn’t the number-one language in terms of native speakers, it holds the top spot if you count all the people who use it as a second or third language (according to some sources – others hold out that Mandarin Chinese still has more). And its one of the only languages in which non-native speakers outnumber native ones.
English is increasingly the language of tourism. A German travelling in Spain might well use English to book his tickets and communicate with the wait staff in a cafe. More and more tours are being conducted in English across the board – we recently went on an astronomy tour in Chile and were offered a choice of English or Spanish. When I told an acquaintance who had already visited South America that I was going, he said “all the tour operators speak English, you don’t need to learn Spanish, you’ll get along fine without it.”
I’m glad I did make the effort to learn Spanish though, because although English is widespread and spreading wider, it isn’t spoken universally, and a lot of the most interesting experiences we’ve had have been in non-English-speaking environments. Sure, you can get by with no Spanish, if you book an all-inclusive tour or just stay in big hostels, but not knowing at least a little of the language distances you from the destination.
I was speaking with an Argentinian couple recently, and they said they’d noticed English affecting tourism as well, but not in a good way. They’d wanted to do a tour in a winery, but it was only offered in English – and since their English is rudimentary they couldn’t do it. That would be an understandable situation in Australia or the UK, but they were in their home country. The winery said that since most of the visitors spoke English, it made sense just to run English tours.
Is this a trend that will continue? Is English going to get bigger and bigger and eventually take over the world completely? Will another language take over? Or will we find a balance that includes embracing local languages?