How Did English Become a Global Language?
An estimated 1.8 billion people across the globe can speak at least some English. Things were very different just a few centuries ago when English speakers were almost exclusively confined to the British Isles. In those days, there were fewer than 7 million English speakers. How did a minority language become the world’s lingua franca?
English is not an easy language
All languages seem easy if you happen to be a native speaker. However, there is a common misconception that so many have adopted English as a second language because it is easy to learn.
The truth is that English is not an easy language to pick up and the nature of the language has nothing to do with growth in the number of speakers.
English is actually a comparatively difficult language to master, courtesy of its enormous vocabulary and famously inconsistent grammar.
To make matters worse, the large number of speakers and the diverse nationalities of those speakers are causing the language to become even more complex over time.
There are considerable differences between American English and British English. So you might be surprised to hear that the Oxford English Dictionary now contains dozens of Nigerian English words.
The various cultures of English speakers are gradually producing a language which is that little bit different in every region in which it is spoken. English is not one language, but many.
The influence of the British Empire
It is power and politics that have seen English become a global language. At one time, the British Empire encompassed almost a quarter of the world, making English a significant language in many colonies. In Asia and Africa, English may not have been the people’s language, but it was the language of trade. It was the language of the elite and afforded access to education and advancement.
Eventually, the various countries that made up the British Empire gained their independence. But they still needed to communicate with each other while boasting a host of different native languages. English won the day as the most influential people already spoke it. It was inevitable that through economic influence, English would become the language of business and politics. People needed to speak English to find success in life. More and more people learnt Business English for this reason. It acquired a firm foothold and remains the dominant or official language in many territories.
Sailors, soldiers, traders and missionaries took English around the world. English speakers also migrated to North America. Of course, they weren’t the only people to settle there. But the founding fathers of the United States recognised the importance of English and worked to reinforce its position as the language of the majority.
English gradually became more and more significant globally, but it was not the first European language of colonisation. As recently as the 19th century, it was more common for those with different native languages to communicate in French. So it is clear that English couldn’t have become preeminent solely because of the British Empire and migration to North America.
The power of the United States
History shows that English would never have become the world’s lingua franca had the United States not evolved into such a powerful nation. Moreover, the American economy boomed after World War II, reinforcing English as the language of trade and finance. As a result, American influence spread far and wide. All nations needed to trade with the United States, and the ability to speak English was crucial to those seeking careers in business or politics.
Will English remain on top post Brexit?
English is the language of the most powerful nation on Earth and the third official language of the European Union, with an estimated 95% of all European Parliament texts now drafted in English.
Throughout Europe, English is now spoken so widely as a second language that it would take centuries to knock it off its perch. Yet, in many ways, the status quo is self-perpetuating. People need influence in order to effect change, and they need to speak English to become influential.
Here in France, having English skills is essential. For example, at word-Connection, our project management team communicate with clients from all over Europe by email in English. Thus, English is our primary language of communication even though our European office is based in a non-English speaking country, and many of our team are Japanese or French.
It’s no secret that English remains the language of choice for the Japanese business world; the recent UK and EU, free trade deals with Japan, will continue to cement English as the dominant language of international business.
An English soundtrack
Culture has also proved crucial to the dominance of the English language. There’s a chicken and egg situation here. Has British and American music topped the charts across the globe because so many people speak English, or do more people speak English because they listen to British and American music? The same could be said of movies and television productions.
There are few regions of the world that the Beetles or Kanye West music have yet to reach. You will hear the dulcet tones of Freddie Mercury blaring out of radios just about everywhere. Most artists seeking fame and fortune perform their music in English to appeal to the widest possible audience. ABBA may never have become such a global phenomenon had they chosen to sing in Swedish. That’s just the way it is, at least for now. Ta En Chane På Mig simply doesn’t have the same ring about it as Take A Chance On Me!
Tokyo Olympics-lost in translation
All things in life will change over time. However, once anything has gained a certain status or level of dominance, it is very hard to shift. For example, imagine if a new global athletics event was established. Many competitors would probably take part but would the best of the best turn up to run? Even if they did, would the status of the event rival that of the Olympics?
Will people suddenly stop ordering from Amazon because there’s a new kid on the block? Almost certainly not. So many people already speak English that change is deeply unlikely.
Could English become the first language of every nation? Probably not! But it is possible to see a future in which the vast majority of people speak English in addition to their mother tongue. In many countries, this is already the case.