The English-Speaking World

The English language plays an astonishingly important role in the world today. It is difficult to calculate exactly how many people speak it - estimates range between 500 million and one billion - and how well they speak it. For inhabitants of Britain, the USA, Australia and so on, it is the first language of the vast majority of the population. In other countries where English is an official language, such as India, only a fairly small minority of speakers know and use it. And then how do you classify the foreign speakers throughout the globe? At the final count, perhaps as many as a quarter of the world's population know some English.

However you calculate the numbers of speakers, English is not the most widely-spoken language in the world. That record is held by Chinese in its various forms. But English is unsurpassed as the world's international language. Statistics show that three-quarters of the world's letters, faxes and e-mail communications are written in English. Important scientists and academics who do not understand English are almost considered illiterate. English is the official language of the Olympic games, air-traffic control, shipping. and many international organizations - even Comecon, the former Eastern-European bloc's economic organization, used English for some of its affairs. Unofficially, English is used in more business deals throughout the world than any other language, it is the language of pop music and of show business. The world's major TV and radio companies all broadcast in English. Many other languages have adopted English words: 'Franglais' includes le self, le rosbif, and so on.

This predominance of English is all the more surprising when it is considered that little over four hundred years ago, English was still an immature language spoken in an isolated European island by around six million people and more-or-less unknown to the rest of the world. It was the process of colonization in the 17th century which began the spread of English. Subsequently, the political and industrial superiority of Britain first and America later ensured the pre-eminence that the English language has assumed over the years.

In short, English has become a worldwide lingua franca. Mass tourism has meant that more and more people in the first world need to be able to communicate with people in the developing world, and this situation is likely to expand. However, some experts have suggested that it is not proper English that has become the world's lingua franca, but some kind of 'Basic English' - an unofficial infinitive-only get-by language used by the majority of non-native speakers for basic, everyday communication. Some researchers have even suggested teaching 'Basic English' to most learners, with a maximum of 850 words and a simplified grammar, but such schemes have always proved unpopular with teachers and learners, as well as with the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry - a big foreign-currency earner for Britain in particular and other English-speaking countries.

The other side of the coin is that with the spread of the English language, English-American culture has also spread throughout the world, often to the detriment of local culture. This phenomenon is often referred to as 'linguistic imperialism' or 'linguistic hegemony'. As a result, local languages, cultures and values are sometimes prevented from developing, and code-switching becomes common. Very recently, the term 'coca-colonization' has been coined to describe the influence of American culture and business.

But what about the future? Many people see English becoming even more important in the future. Fast-developing nations, such as Singapore, insist on all school children learning English. However, nearby Indonesia has deliberately promoted a local language, Bahasa, as a national language and fewer people there speak English than they did thirty years ago. No one can deny that English is a world language today because of the United States' role as a superpower. But how long will the US retain its supremacy? Will America ever be ousted by Japan or China as the world's power-house? Some people even suggest that just as Latin broke up into the present-day Romance languages with the decline of the Roman Empire, English may likewise split up into a number of fairly different languages as the importance of English-speaking nations declines in the world. These two theories are sometimes known as the 'centripetal' and the 'centrifugal' hypotheses.

Some Figures

Mother Tongue Speakers of
Major World Languages

Mandarin - 765,000,000

English - 350,000,000

Spanish - 250,000,000

Hindi - 200,000,000

Arabic - 150,000,000

Bengali - 150,000,000

Russian - 150,000,000

Official Language Populations

English - 1,400,000,000

Mandarin - 1,000,000,000

Hindi - 700,000,000

Spanish - 280,000,000

Russian - 270,000,000

French - 220,000,000

Arabic - 170,000,000

Estimates for Native and Non-Native
Speakers of Major Languages

Mandarin - 800,000,000

English - 700,000,000

Spanish - 350,000,000

Hindi - 250,000,000

Russian - 200,000,000

Arabic - 170,000,000

Some Quotations

The rapidly growing interest in English cuts across political and ideological lines because of the convenience of a lingua franca increasingly used as a second language in important areas of the world. English is a key which opens doors to scientific and technical knowledge indispensable to the economic and political development of vast areas of the world.

International Education and Cultural Exchange, U.S. Government publication, quoted by Randolph Quirk in The Use of English

The notion of English as the most important language in the world is, I think, an ideological production, the creation of the native and non-native elite with a material and professional interest in the language, its retention and dissemination worldwide. It is being predicted, for example, that, in California, in a few decades, on account of the migration from the South and the West , English might become the second language of the majority of the population.

P.D. Tripathi in English: 'The Chosen Tongue'

© (except for quotations) Nigel J. Ross, 2003




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