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English Language

John Simkin

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LONDON (Reuters) - Centuries of Anglo-French rivalry have turned in favour of "les rosbifs" with a study that predicted the study of English would rocket over the coming decade while interest in French slumps.

Two billion people will be learning English within the next 10 years and half of the world's population could be speaking it by 2015, according to research released by the British Council. The state-funded group aims to promote British culture.

But the study warned French could become a "major casualty" of the shift in learning patterns. It highlighted Arabic and Spanish as "key languages" of the future and said German was also becoming popular in parts of Asia.

"The world is rapidly becoming multilingual and English is only one of the languages people in other countries are learning," said researcher David Graddol.

However, smug Britons should not be too quick to celebrate. The British Council believes the boom will be over by 2050 as the industry becomes a victim of its own success and the number of those learning English slumps to just 500 million.

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French has already become a major casualty, particularly in the European Union. The expansion of the EU has accelerated the adoption of English as a lingua franca - which was well on the way before the admission of the new member states earlier this year. There is some concern in the European Commission that the goal of every EU citizen speaking their mother tongue plus two foreign languages is unlikely to be achieved. England has already opted out by making the study of a foreign language optional beyond the age of 14, and other countries in the EU are cutting down on the teaching of a second foreign language (i.e. other than English) in secondary education.

Spanish has overtaken German as the second foreign language studied in secondary schools in England - which is not surprising in view of the popularity of Spain as a holiday destination and the fact that Spanish is extremely useful as a world language. On the other hand, native German speakers in Europe outnumber French native speakers by a considerable margin, which probably makes German more useful as a language for people who wish to travel around central Europe - which is certainly my experience as a fluent speaker of German. The influence of French has not extended eastwards in Europe, where German is spoken much more widely as a first or second foreign language.

Watch out for the spread of Chinese as China becomes commercially more powerful. It could easily eclipse English as a world language.

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