It is thought that about a quarter of the world’s population of 7.4 million (March 2016) can communicate – to a great or lesser extent – in English. It is now the third most spoken language in the world after Mandarin and Spanish, and in Asia alone, 350 million people speak English – more than the number of native speakers in the USA, Canada and the UK put together.
So, how and why has this happened? And what does it mean for young professionals the world over?
In the Middle Ages, language was Latin dominated; in the 18th century, French ruled the roost, but when the British began to explore the world and colonise, they took with them their language to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, to India, Asia and Africa; in fact you could say, right around the world.
As Britain’s industrial, economic and political power and influence grew, so too did the English-speaking world and today, English is the global language of business, science, air traffic control, computers, international politics and diplomacy, academia and finance – and of the BBC Radio World Service and Hollywood.
Travel anywhere in the world and English is the language you will hear at hotel reception desks, in shops and restaurants and at tourist attractions, being spoken not just to native English speakers but to all foreigners, as a linguistic bridge of communication.
Teaching English as a foreign language is an expanding industry currently worth about £2 billion, while growing awareness of the huge advantage English-speaking countries have and the importance for young career-minded people around the world to gain a strong grasp of English, means that the momentum for it to embed itself as the official global language could well be irresistible.
A report from The British Council published in 2013 says:
“English changes lives. The impact of globalisation and economic development has made English the language of opportunity and a vital means of improving an individual’s prospects for well-paid employment.”
Political and economic factors have been the main driving forces in spreading English around the world, but other factors may have been incidental in encouraging its growth.
There are 20 volumes of the revised OED (Oxford English Dictionary) containing 615,000 words, 200,000 of which are in common use. Thanks to this vast vocabulary, English has a richness and depth other languages lack.
The grammar is also easier than other languages with no noun genders and no familiar and formal forms. Sentence construction is not totally rigid either and, although there are plenty of examples where logic seems to have been cast aside, still 84% of words conform to general patterns and rules.
Historically, English has also been highly absorbent, embracing words from Old Norse, Norman French, Arabic, Indian, Chinese, among other languages. This gives it a cosmopolitan flavour, while its cultural and class connotations have given it a legitimacy and importance.
With so many people from so many different countries learning and speaking the language, inevitably, there are different ‘Englishes’ emerging: Singlish in Singapore, Taglish in the Philippines, Pidgin English in parts of Asia, Spanglish in Mexico, and Globish, an international incarnation, to name a few, all of which are developing words, syntax, pronunciations and a character of their own.
As Salman Rushdie says in Imaginary Homelands (Granta Books 1992):
“What seems to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it – assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.”
As it spreads, that evolution will continue. More and more, the changes will not be within the control of its native speakers but rather those across the world who speak English as a second language.
In fifty years time, the various Englishes now developing could be having an impact on standard native English and it’s possible that, further into the future, the language as we know it will come to sound as unfamiliar as Old English sounds today…