What Will Disappear by 2030? An Intro to Global English

Cindy Wagner, the future-savvy editor at The Futurist magazine is running a new feature, Disappearing Futures: What Won’t Be Around in 2030? Here are three things I proposed will greatly or entirely disappear over this timeframe: Endangered Languages, Economic Immigration Barriers, and Mass Fundamentalist Religious Intolerance. In the process I introduce an imminent planetary development that I’m particularly excited about: Global English. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments, thanks.

The leading language learning software on the planet. Waiting to be knocked off its pedestal by something entirely free and crowdsourced, like Wikipedia.

The leading language learning software on the planet. Soon to be disrupted by crowdlearning platforms like Duolingo, Memrise, etc.

True Wearable wristphone concept, 2007. Someone make this now. Please.

Wearable wristphone concept, 2007. Coming circa 2015.

By 2020, the ubiquity and affordability of wearable smartphones (Google glass, wristphones, etc), and the power of the conversational interface (Google Now, etc.) will give enterprising youth everywhere access to “teacherless education,” lifelong learning by conversation, both with remote peers and with the web itself. For kids in developing nations, the killer app of teacherless education will be learning a developed nations language while learning their own, increasingly from birth. Their wearable will “listen in” as they learn their native language and deliver the same words in the foreign language of choice, along with images, learning aids, and games that test proficiency. They can of course let their system post their developed world language skill level on global networking, recruiting, and microwork platforms (LinkedIn, oDesk, etc.), opening themselves up to new collaboration opportunities.

Imagine a Rosetta Stone that’s 24/7, free, wearable, conversational, and driven by crowdlearning, and you’re seeing what I call Global English. Check out Duolingo, a new crowdlearning platform for language learning and translation, and Memrise, a new platform for learning anything by crowdsourced memnonics, spaced repetition, and adaptive testing, and you’ll see two exciting examples of how the wearable web, learning science, and millions of connected people will bring us Global English in just a few more years.

Of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken today, perhaps 4,000 of the endangered languages will no longer be spoken by children in 2030 (making them “moribund”), and perhaps 90% of the remaining 2,000 will have lost users as well, as the languages of developed nations with the most open cultures increasingly take their place. While we mourn the loss of endangered languages and the minds that speak them, what matters most is ensuring that their cultural history, values, and semantic complexity are captured in the languages we continue to speak. We’ll also see many more scientific, technical, business, social, and artistic “languages” (knowledge systems, like coding) increasingly taught from birth with these amazing learning systems.

Good book on the underrecognized value of merit-driven immigration to economic and cultural wealth. It has been and always will be so.

A mix of merit-based and humanitarian immigration has always been a key driver of economic and cultural wealth. Politicos may not want it, but the internet will accelerate global virtual immigration.

English, the global language of business today, and a language much easier to learn than Chinese, it’s closest competitor, will definitely benefit most, with Global English platforms bringing English-speaking nations as many as 1 billion new “virtual immigrants” by 2030. Though most of these will still be kids under 18 in 2030, the wearable web and Global English may grow the total potential English-language workforce on the order of 30-50% in two decades, a growth rate we haven’t seen since Industrial Revolution-era immigration to the US and UK. At the same time, in the high-bandwidth 2020’s, many economic barriers to participating in the global economy will disappear. Eager underemployed youth anywhere, speaking the same language and increasingly understanding the same global culture, will be able to work with large and small companies everywhere, vastly accelerating global innovation and entrepreneurship in the 2030’s and beyond. That will be an amazing time.

While most youth and adults will use wearable machine translation for any contact with outside cultures, such mediated systems will never be as fast or fluid as knowing the foreign language itself, and the “death of language learning” predicted by some futurists by the 2030’s won’t occur. Instead we’ll see growth in foreign language learning at some threshold of marginal opportunity and native speaker number (perhaps 5o million?), and rapid growth in a handful of the most influential global languages, and in particular, English. Companies like Open English are already using the web to accelerate English-language learning today with $1000, yearlong, four-person online classes with proficiency guarantees. Imagine what will happen when this price drops to free, as with Duolingo and Memrise, the learning is 24/7, and the AI and crowdlearning tools get really good.

A key motivation to consider is how the parents who push their children to learn a leading foreign language (or two) will give those children both measurably greater economic opportunities and I believe, provably greater collaborative and cognitive fluencies, since learning a foreign language and getting immersion experiences in that culture, even digitally, allows you to better think in, work with, and understand that culture. Although there are as yet no good measures for the semantic size of vocabularies in our languages, (a topic we care about, unlike R.L.G.’s conclusion in the post I’ve linked to) it is well known that leading languages have by far the largest semantic vocabularies by comparison to languages spoken by just a few hundred thousand people. English is often claimed to have a special place in this regard, having absorbed so many words and concepts from other cultures, and with deep technical vocabularies, that some estimate that it has over 1 million words now. Of all the knowledge bases one could easily learn at birth, choice of language(s) seems key. Linguists and cognitive psychologists have argued for decades that language influences thought. What we can all agree on is that semantic complexity influences thought, and that some languages have much more of it than others. It is also true that learning just a tiny percentage (perhaps 2%?) of the words in most languages can give you basic fluency in that language, and we can expect to see a lot more of this kind of polyglot learning of languages in the future.

One day, when we hit the tech singularity (which I’m guessing will be in the 2060’s, and it’s just a guess because acceleration studies doesn’t exist yet as a funded field, we have some waking up still to do) I imagine the AIs will create, and teach us all, a new global language that is a semantic mashup of all the best of our global cultures, even more than our mongrel English, and with a structure that is grammatically easier and phonetically far more efficient (perhaps by using all 100 phonemes we use across all cultures, instead of just the 20 or so in a typical language) than anything that exists today. An Esperanto for the late 21st century. But until that time arrives, what seems obvious to me is that English, the most widely taught foreign language today, will continue to win as the collaboration language of choice in coming decades, just as cities will continue to win over rural areas.  And those who speak in any language will have a much richer ability to interact with all others who use that language.

CoexistIsraelPalestineNow for perhaps the most controversial prediction. As long as global science, technology, free trade, and wealth continue to accelerate, as I expect they will, and our resilience to catastrophes of all types continues to grow, all the major religions and ideologies will grow more ecumenical and secular as well. Mass fundamentalist religious intolerance, still a serious issue today (Islamists of the West, Hindus of Dalits, Christians of gays, etc.) will be decimated in the ambiently intelligent, hyperconnected world of 2030. Specifically, fundamentalist religious movements ability to use economic or other catastrophes to roll back social reforms at national levels, will have disappeared for good, in any nation.  Consider the Iranian Revolution in 1979, where mass religious fundamentalism, reacting to the “catastrophes” of corrupt governance and reckless modernization, rolled back personal freedoms and social development perhaps a century or so.

In the wearable web world, political activism will surely be accelerated, but it will also be far more transparent and accountable to public sentiment. Tolerance for both mass and individual intolerance and extremism will go out the window, as the costs of extreme and intolerant views and behaviors will be delivered not only to our televisions, as occurred in the Vietnam War in 1960’s US, but to our bodies, everywhere and continously. Political and religious fundamentalist backlashes within subcultures will always be with us, but we can expect (and hope) they’ll be far more circumscribed, weak, and short-lived. We can predict that as long as sci-tech accelerations continue, Global Gen Z youth, interacting socially with an intimacy and concurrency that we can only dream of today, will overwhelmingly see mass fundamentalist intolerance as extremist, arrogant, and counterproductive.

Still don’t believe the third prediction? Read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2012, for a masterful expose of this global megatrend.  Amen!

About the Author: John M. Smart is a technology foresight scholar, educator, speaker, and consultant. President, Acceleration Studies Foundation. Blog: http://EverSmarterWorld.com

BBC Doc: People’s Century, Ep 24, God Fights Back – The Return of Religious Fundamentalism (Late 1970’s to Early 1980’s)

I’ve just finished People’s Century*, 1995, an amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. It is definitely the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen yet.

I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. It should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. Documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) give us what David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system in its essentials. People’s Century gives you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial trends, cycles, opportunities, and challenges of civilization, and in particular our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.

Of the 26 episodes, I found Episode 24, God Fights Back (see links for a great PBS site with program descriptions and teacher resources), the most personally enlightening by a narrow margin, though several others, particularly Killing Fields, Lost Peace, On the Line, Breadline, Total War, Freedom Now, Asia Rising, Endangered Planet, Great Leap and Half the People are also particularly great, to pick a personal top 11 (sometimes 10 isn’t enough!). They all tell amazing, inspiring stories of cultural, political and technological change, in a format short enough for dinner viewing. Unfortunately, aside from a few random episodes (see bottom of this post), the interwebs are the only place you can find this incredible series online at present. Let’s hope the BBC releases it digitally for a reasonable price soon. In the meantime, check the torrent sites, and caveat emptor.

God Fights Back, after a brief nod to the rapid civil rights and modernization disruptions occurring round the world in the 1960’s (covered beautifully in earlier episodes), considers the inevitable and equally rapid fundamentalist backlash against modernization that occurred in Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, the USA, and several other countries beginning in the late 1970’s to the early 80’s. For the US version, recall the fundamentalist Christians who marched on Washington for Jesus in 1980, the Reagan Revolution, and the rise of the Christian Right and its neoconsequences. All of these backlashes were triggered largely by too-fast and too-insensitive modernization, from the filmmaker’s perspective. Although I’d like to see more data to back that hypothesis, I find it quite plausible. Also, the film is rich with ideas for how things could have been handled better, ideas which continue to be useful today.

For example, there’s an awesome bit in the film on the way sexual objectification of women used by growth-oriented Western corporations to sell products in Iran was seen as particularly offensive and corrupting by some Islamic women. If only the Shah had been smart enough to be listening to his people, and sharply restricted this kind of advertising (basically pornography, from the Islamic perspective) and other bits of unthinking cultural warfare by the newly monied class on the rest of society. He could have set some smart standards, requiring social referenda before the “pornography” laws would be relaxed in various classes (it will clearly be a few more decades before anti-Mohammed cartoons will be allowed in most Islamic societies, for example) that other modernizing Islamic nations could have emulated. Every society regulates speech and has pornography standards, which reform on their own internal pace, and if you ignore them, you pay a steep price for your ignorance and arrogance. Some errors turn out to be critically important, in the end.

There was certainly a lot of gambling and prostitution and other corrosions of traditional values going under the Shah, just as in Cuba under Batista, which JFK, in 1963, said was the worst he knew of in any colonial country (see Cuban Revolution on Wikipedia for the surprising quote). When the Shah didn’t realize he needed the continual blessing of a significant portion of clerics and ministers to the poor, and wasn’t willing to engage in a brutal and damning de-religification of his society the way Mao and Castro and other extreme autocrats did, a Pyrrhic victory not worth the cost, he sealed his fate.

This series shows the folly of pushing modernization too fast, of letting unrestrained commercialism disrupt social fabric, of not honoring the ideas and beliefs of the majority, of not engaging the religious community in inevitable reforms, and of not staying at the pace of the most rapid religious reformers in your community. In this episode we see modernization driven at the unsustainable speeds of technocratic visionaries in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. Some of them, like the Shah, had their modernization fueled by massive new oil wealth, and the changes went insanely fast. Anyone with sense could see the train wreck coming.

The story of Iran’s incredible modernization under Shah Reza Pahlavi from 1936 to 1979, when women lost the veil and got modern educations and freedoms, and when commerce and technology ruled the day, then the even more rapid and brutal loss of women’s and civil rights under the fundamentalist Khomeini in the 1980’s, and Iran’s isolation and extremism since, is one of the most dramatic tales of the 20th century. I’ve recently heard that The Queen and I, 2008 (IMDB 7.2), by an Iranian filmmaker who talks with the widow of the Shah, is a compelling and very personal retelling of Iran’s late 20th century story. It’s on my watchlist now. This history is critical not only to understanding modern Iran, but to understanding modernization in general.

The only thing People’s Century has underplayed so far is the impact of the massive rise of the corporations since 1950. We’ve let our global corporations get bigger than most of our governments in the last 60 years, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they take over our political systems, remove choice and competition at the top, and corruption and crony capitalism and corporate welfare result. I’m confident we’ll fix this imbalance in the future, but the first step is seeing the problem. People’s Century gets close in several of its episodes, but ultimately it misses on this critical point. I’m giving the series an 8.8 however. Ultimately it’s must-watch material.

*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is on Amazon Instant Video. A few more are online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type if you torrent, so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a creaky old VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until reasonably priced digital educational video emerges (and we all know what reasonable is), you should have no qualms going to the internets for this, as long as you are willing to pay the price, as in all conflict. Be a soldier in the war for global access to affordable quality educational video!

Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. I hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.

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