At the turn of the 16th century, English was the language of a small island in the northeast corner of the windy Atlantic. By the 19th century it was spoken by those colonial British landlords who lorded it over vast swathes of continents. In the 21st century the English politically, have retreated back to their tiny island, in order to watch episodes of "Come Dine with Me" or "Wife Swap," yet the rest of the world, no longer being colonized has decided, yes "we can make English our own."
Naturally the child of England, America, grew up and has a lot to do with the victory or popularity of the current lingua franca as of now. A wise Russian once said of language learning in Russia, "the optimist learns English, the pessimist learns Chinese, and the realist learns weapons." This saying may be taken in a number of different ways, but my preference is that Chinese is a rather complex language, while English on the other hand is comparatively simple with 26 characters, no accents, and versatile with over 250,000 words.
We can thank American optimism, enterprise and ideals for the popularity of English across the globe. The ideals of liberty and philosophy of libertarian visionaries gave the option to the individual to have self-determination, it was the idea that "hey, we've got a successful thing going on over here, you can join in if you want, but we don't take slackers." So where are we now? Economically and militarily the Anglo-American alliance seems to be under increasing stress. We must look to the leadership of the nations where a language has its native bases in order to gauge its state of health or otherwise. TESOL estimated around 1.5 billion non-native English language learners, as of 2014, indicating a healthy pulse for the English language. However, there are other issues that could change the game in the future. Some are to do with other players and some are to do with the health of the native culture and its integrity on many levels, including the economic, political, social, moral and even the spiritual.
Naturally leadership is important, so this is where geopolitics comes into the game. China and Russia are contenders for domination on a global scale. The rivalry is palpable though this is not to say that war is an inevitability or that one should avoid making any observations about what's going on. If either China or Russia do steal the mantle of global hegemony it may well take decades for a new lingua franca to settle in, unless of course the economic, cultural and military victory is anything but total, and in which case it would still take decades, as much as the average Jo world citizen would like to learn Russian or Chinese, English we might say has its foot firmly in the door. Doing the maths, 470 million native speakers with 1.5 billion learners still leaves 5 billion out of a total of 7 billion people. The real power comes not from numbers but rather from the presence on every continent and in every city across the globe. Nevertheless, success is not assured, there is still a long way to go for English to become a true global language spoken by all.
What can be predicted for 2020? Or how about 2030 for that matter? Well, take a look at the leadership of native lands. It is difficult to make a judgement on a global scale. In 1940 it looked like German would become a world language. This is a demonstration of changes that can occur suddenly. Even in the 1950's and for the following decades, dozens of countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia started learning Russian, and though it has rolled back, there are older generations who still remember. But the young are enthused by English, even to the point where in parts of Berlin, laws are being enacted to make Germans keep speaking German in public places such as restaurants or cafes.
So, what does the situation look like currently? Economically, the West is in a precarious position. Our optimistic American English leadership is about $20 trillion in the red, which has never happened in the history of that nation before, not to mention household debt. Backwater Britain has beaten a retreat from Europe, to the derision of the post war European marriage. The British English leadership is a small player, but as a litmus test for English seems to be in a bit of an existential crisis now. Are they European, are they global, or are they just a tiny island with no new ideas and no desire to change the world anymore? Other areas that might draw the interest of those curious about the future of English might look at cultural strength, and looking a little deeper may observe something amiss in the spiritual or moral life of the English speaking sphere. It may be a long discussion and may not be endemic to native English lands but rather to Western nations in general, and their spiritual foundations.
The Alliance we can say with 99% certainty is facing a crisis over the next few years or decades with other powers eclipsing it economically and eventually militarily also. English will face crises when people look to the nation with superior strength. Yet on the other hand, from a strategic point of view, the North Atlantic Alliance has the upper hand still across the world. It is still in a great position of strength despite the continual red figures on the accounting side. There are critics and detractors, there are sworn enemies of the English-speaking world, yet, at this current moment the numbers do not lie, with 470 million native speakers, 1.5 billion second language learners, it is a good piece of the pie that English has won, not just through military domination, but through underlying philosophies that are pro-freedom, pro-self-determination and pro-prosperity.
It is possible that 2020 will demonstrate English weathering the storm because people are content to join in and speak this language with their own culture and traditions still intact. Whether English revitalizes itself culturally, technologically and economically depends on new ideas, and events that are out of the blue. If there is a decline, it would without doubt be one that originates internally, just as the Russian retreat from power in the 1990's signified a diminishing of Russian culture and language abroad, the same might be true for the English language. The question is not really about the rivalry of rising powers but rather about whether existing powers can maintain their own vigor and integrity. Surely the future success will depend on a sustained providing of quality, content and opportunity. A language itself may be neutral, but the people speaking it must be a standard to which others would want to emulate. Either that or it loses traction.
On a personal level, the opportunities are still there. The stock market is bullish. All the latest technology and newest ideas on the cutting edge are mostly in the English sphere, this is not to say that they aren't also in other spheres simultaneously, just that in English you can get the newest things and you can also get prized jobs and travel anywhere. There is a lot of fun still to be had by being part of it. However, for a person truly to flourish, it is necessary to cultivate talent and resourcefulness, to become knowledgeable and useful. English we might conclude is merely a playing field, getting on the field itself does not signify success. The same rule applies to the native speaker just as it does to the non-native speaker, so the final word would be to find real value in whatever area it is, for it is the creation of content or product that has value, English can open a Global market place for that content, so have content, product and then expand beyond your borders. The future of English in 2020 is still power in its exaltation, for 2030 it could be anyone's game, it may consolidate or it may decline slowly. So the final note, focus on creating quality content, create useful products of real value first, and when you take it beyond your national borders know a bit of English and then some other languages just in case.