By Mina Patel, Assessment Research Manager, British Council

18 April 2023 - 16:54

Woman sits in a library with shelves of text books behind her. She is holding a book call 'How English works'.
For the foreseeable future, English will remain the dominant global 'lingua franca'. ©

British Council

English is one of the most spoken languages in the world, but what will English look like in the future? Here Mina Patel, one of the authors of the new British Council publication ‘The Future of English: Global Perspectives’, looks at how English, its teaching, assessment and use in business will be affected in a rapidly changing world.

People ask: what’s so important about English? The answer is simple, English connects people and changes lives. English changed my life. I arrived in England at the age of four as a refugee from Uganda. I couldn’t speak a word of English. Today I am one of the authors of the British Council’s newest publication, The Future of English: Global Perspectives. I was lucky. I was inspired at school, had wonderful teachers, and they instilled in me a passion for learning and teaching. I have been in English language education for many years and English has connected me to thousands of people around the world. 

The Future of English: Global Perspectives is part of a long-term research programme, which identifies key trends that will define the role of English as a global language in the coming decade. It also examines the issues and opportunities for countries around the world in achieving their goals for the use of English. 

The publication describes the programme and presents the findings from discussions with 92 policy makers and influencers from 49 countries and territories during 14 roundtables, about what they see as the future of English. From these conversations, eight themes emerged, themes that we believe will have an impact on the future of English in the coming years. So, what are the global perspectives about the future of English and what does the data tell us?

Will English remain the world’s most sought-after language?

For the foreseeable future English will remain the dominant global lingua franca (a language used by people with different native languages to communicate with each other), but the role it plays in the lives of individuals or in policies will begin to change. 

Numbers of learners will remain stable or rise in the next ten years. The main drivers for this are education, employment, technology and global mobility. Employers, parents and learners themselves are driving the need for English language education. They see it as a necessity for success in life, learning and employment. 

What role will English play in our multilingual world?

Multilingualism is the norm in most contexts around the world. Exploration, colonialisation, migration, and globalisation have all contributed to today’s multilingual world. 

English is often one of the languages used in multilingual situations where everyday communication is managed by individuals using their full range of languages organically and fluidly – a practice known as ‘translanguaging’.

One implication for English is that it increasingly ‘belongs’ (in the sense that any language can belong to anybody) to whoever uses it, in whatever form, to interact successfully in any given context. 

What is the future of English as a medium of education?

English as a medium of education (EME), also called English as a medium of instruction is when students are taught subjects in English, regardless of their first language. It is hugely popular in some contexts and is driven by governments and parents that see it as a good way to achieve fluency in English, so improving the chances of students getting a good job in the future.  

Universities which teach courses in English - with lectures, course materials and tutorials all given in English - are now very common. Primary and secondary schools where English is the main language of teaching and learning are also becoming more popular.  However, EME is a topic of much discussion and debate.

How will teachers remain relevant in future English language learning systems?

Our data tells us that teachers are very much at the heart of the teaching and learning process and the education system. Regardless of the technological shifts during the Pandemic, teachers are very important. However, in some places in the world, there are concerns about capacity with two main questions being asked. Are there enough English teachers and are there enough skilled English teachers?

Linked to this is teacher motivation and well-being. If English is considered a valuable and important skill for a nation’s educational, professional and economic success, then it follows that English language teachers should be looked after, supported, developed and rewarded to reflect the significance of their contribution to society. 

Public and private English language provision - who has the answers?

This is an interesting question, and although private language education provision can be better, our participants were concerned about the lack of monitoring and evaluation of private language provision.  

That said, public-sector provision of English language teaching is inadequate in many countries, often featuring inappropriate or outdated curricula.

It is likely that the answers to better quality provision in both sectors lie in greater cross-sector communication and collaboration.

Can English language assessment meet stakeholders’ changing needs?

People require different types of proficiency for different tasks in different contexts. This has implications for teaching, learning and assessment (TLA), particularly as we expect that aligning these components will continue to be of interest in the future.

English is no longer seen in isolation. Instead, it is seen as part of a range of knowledge, skills and expertise, captured by the concept of 21st-century skills and required for a dynamic globalised world. This presents two challenges for current assessment practices:

• Assessment needs to be more creative and innovative to develop and measure individuals more holistically.

• Language Assessment Literacy (LAL) needs to be considered more seriously and concepts of LAL need to adapt to be relevant in this changing assessment landscape.

Can technology narrow the equity gap in English language education?

While there are significant advantages to using technology to aid learning, both in and outside the classroom, these advantages have not always been built upon. This is because uptake and success depend on several factors:

• Access to hardware, such as TV, radio, computers, smartphones and the Internet.

• Teacher skills and motivation to support learning.

• Stakeholder support (within the education system and at home).

• Inclusion in modern curricula of recognition of informal learning (typically online).

The reality is that in many cases there are significant disparities in access across communities. This ‘digital divide’ can have social, educational and economic repercussions for those affected.

It is important to note that in many developing or rural places, technology doesn’t just mean mobile devices, it also means televisions and radios.

To what extent is employment driving the future of English?

The world of work has changed. Globalisation, together with advances in technology, has changed the way many companies operate and the skills required by employees. Previously technical skills in specific areas were highly sought after, now employers are looking for ‘all-round’ employees who can combine technical expertise with additional skills, including teamworking, problem-solving, negotiation, intercultural awareness and digital literacy. 

Multilingual and multicultural workforces are not uncommon, whether people are working remotely or in the same location. English is often the lingua franca and sometimes the official language of business as chosen by organisations. The very concept of international, dispersed teams changes and expands the parameters of English for work. 

English is becoming a requirement for all sectors of industry. At all levels in organisations and all over the world, English at work is no longer only for professional jobs or senior management roles – it has increasingly become necessary for lower-skilled jobs in the tourism and retail sectors. As cited in a previous British Council study, ‘even if English is one of the working languages in a major multinational company, the English proficiency requirement differs from role to role’ 

All these factors have led to the notion of proficiency, as we know it, being re-defined.

As the data shows, the future of English is interesting, dynamic and contextual but there are still many questions. The future of English programme is an invitation for colleagues and partners to collaborate to try and answer some of these questions.  We’re living in exciting times, change is the norm, but for the foreseeable future, English will continue to connect people and change lives. 

Graphic with lilac background, abstract curved shape in dark purple and vermillion, diamond shaped photo of young people chatting. Text says: The Future of English: Global Perspectives #FutureofEnglish

British Council

Find out more about our Future of English programme and download a free copy of the book Future of English: Global Perspectives.

You might also be interested in: