The Unstoppable Rise of English: Why English has a long future as the Lingua Franca of the World
English is not the most common first language in the world. More people have Spanish as their mother tongue, and for three times as many, it is Mandarin. So why does English have the largest number of total speakers? Why does English have by far the highest number of learners? Why is over half of the internet written in English?
Here is a little look at what has lead English to its position today, and why I believe that this position won’t change any time soon.
A Lingua Franca is a common language that people use to communicate despite it not being their mother tongue. Many languages have been used in such ways. Latin was the Lingua Franca of the Roman Empire for centuries. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, when diplomats of different countries met, they would most commonly speak in French. However, with the finishing of the Second World War, English became the dominant language of the world.
Geography, history and politics give reasons as to why English took over. Just as the break-up of the British Empire left 67 countries with English as an official language, one of which, The United States of America, was becoming the dominant world power.
Throughout the 20th century, English spread faster than any other language through all forms of media. From Hollywood films to British pop music, there is no other language that has penetrated almost every corner of the globe in some way. At the same time, more and more people learned English formally in their home country. Whether it be a Norwegian child learning English as a second language, or a Nigerian child who has all her textbooks in English; the idea of English as the second language had begun, and wouldn’t stop.
A few years ago I went to a party in Romania, and started talking to a man in his early twenties. After a while I asked him why his English was so good. “The internet is in English!” he said.
Of course, many have learnt in a formal setting, in their compulsory education, or in private classes. However, a growing number of young people have learnt English through osmosis. By watching a series on Netflix, reading the lifestyle section of a magazine, or ordering a cheesecake, English is being learnt subtly. In the increasingly globalised world that we live in, this contact is becoming more and more common. Over half of all facebook users choose to use English to access their social media account. Undoubtedly these are not all native-speakers!
Just like a snowball rolling down a mountain, the continued growth of English makes it more and more important. If you were offered a year of free travel around the world, but you could only speak one language, what would it be? Unless you would particularly like to stay in one place, there is only one option that makes sense. If a Turkish man meets a Japanese woman on an aeroplane from Thailand to India, what language might he initiate a conversation in?
I love languages, and think that learning a second or third language can be a truly fantastic life experience for many reasons. However, I believe that the dominance of English in the world is only going to grow throughout the 21st century, and possibly beyond.
One reason is a very positive one – the world is becoming more educated. The fact that in most of the world children go through some kind of education system means that they are more likely than ever to learn a second language. Of course, in many parts of Africa this may be French and in parts of central Asia it may be Russian, however English will no doubt continue to be the number one choice in the world.
Another reason is that technological advances will probably continue to make international communication more necessary. As the language of the internet and Silicon Valley, it seems that English will only be more important in the world of international relations and international business in the years to come.
But what about Chinese?
As we know, Chinese has the most native-speakers, and the Chinese economy is set to be bigger than that of the U.S. within our lifetimes. China is taking part in more international affairs, and Chinese businesses are starting in every country in the world. So, surely Chinese should be in competition for the top-spot of world languages?
I don’t think so for several reasons. The most important one is simply that Chinese is too difficult! Out of the nearly one billion people who have learnt English as a second language, most of them have an Indo-European language as a mother tongue, and many will have used latin characters from an early age. Going from this to learning Chinese characters and grammar is a huge jump. And if Chinese letters and grammar don’t scare you, then spoken Chinese might. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that just small differences in tone can completely change a word’s meaning.
If you think that the difficulty is just a challenge that people could overcome, then I will remind you of one of the real reasons that English is in people’s homes in Macedonia and Malaysia – culture. Can you name a Chinese film? Can you name a Chinese pop group or singer that is widely known? Chinese is incredibly important in China. English is incredibly important all over the world.
From tackling global warming to policing the internet, the future is only going to produce more problems that need to be solved internationally. All indications point to the primary means of communication for our future being English. Do you agree?