The English Language in the World
A Few Facts About English
Arguably, English is the world language, spoken by some 380 million people as their first language. More than half of these (231 million) live in the United States, followed by some 60 million in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of the English language. Estimates of second language speakers vary greatly, from 470 million to more than 1 billion. Although English is now the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin and Spanish, it is the most widely spoken language worldwide when including native and non-native speakers in the count.
English is the language of globalization, the lingua franca of international business, politics and diplomacy, encompassing and impacting everything, from computers and the Internet to pop songs. It is not only the most commonly spoken language in some of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – 60 countries in total; it is also a widely spoken language in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. English is the most widely taught second language, and an official language of many international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Olympic Committee.
Let’s have a closer look at this language that has become today’s standard.
Birth of the English language
This West Germanic language of the “low people” of early medieval England, as Robert of Gloucester put it at the time, has certainly come a long way.
In the fifth century, Old English was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers a as a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects. At the end of the 11th century, the Norman conquest of England transformed it into Middle English, until the late 15th century when it was shaped it into Early Modern English with the introduction of the printing press to London and the King James Bible. Around that time, English began to be disseminated around the world as pilgrims, sailors, soldiers, traders, and missionaries of Britain voyaged abroad.
Spread with the British Empire
It used to be said in the Victorian Age that “the sun never set on the British Empire”. Several decades after the end of colonization, the sun has now definitely set on it. But to this day, English remains a crucial language in all former colonies, playing a mostly administrative role. With the exception of the US, few Britons actually settled in those colonies because trade was their main focus. This explains why English never became the one dominant language in many of the colonies. It was the language of business, education, and administration – not the language of the people. For a long time, however, speaking English meant getting access to education. And after the English colonies became independent, developing their own spoken and written forms of the language, many countries became officially multilingual for the first time. When they needed a language for communication purposes, English was the easiest, most obvious choice.
But English was not the first language of European colonialism: the Europeans who sailed to America also brought French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Italian. Although the US does not have an official language (which is somewhat controversial), and Spanish and the languages of more recent immigrants are on the rise, it is undeniable that in practice English is the dominant language. In countries where large settler colonies were formed, such as the US, Canada, and Australia, native languages have become near-extinct because of the presence of English. And as recently as the 19th century, English wasn’t the world’s lingua franca: as the term suggests, French was the number one language of international communication and it still remains one of the most widely spoken, used and taught languages in the world.
So what can explain why English truly became the world language of the modern era? We will discuss this in our next post! Check back in a week or so!