If you are learning English right now, chances are it’s probably something to do with getting your degree, advancing in your career, or maybe for personal reasons like having an English-speaking partner. Nowadays it seems like everyone is learning English, and it is becoming the world’s most widely spoken language. It is used in business and trade all over the world, and in places like Europe, it is spoken widely outside of business. But why? What makes English the magic catch-all language that everyone wants to speak fluently? How did it become so important and widespread? The answer lies not just in the history of the language, but politics, culture and technology!
Here are 5 Reasons Why English Has Become Today’s Global Language:
1) The British Empire. The first, and most obvious reason that English became widespread in the first place is because of the British Empire. Before colonizing around a quarter of the planet (!), Britons were the only ones speaking English, and the language was confined to the British Isles. But once they started doing trade with places like Asia and Africa, colonizing and settling around the globe, the language naturally spread. However, it was mainly used in administration and business dealings—locals were still speaking their native languages for the most part. But when it came to getting an education, that was done in English. So English then became an elitist language of sorts, spoken by those who were educated in literature, philosophy and poetry, much like French was back when it was the most widely spoken language. So how did English take over French as the most spoken language? Well there’s more to the story than the Brits.
2) Post-war USA. The world after the first two world wars was a vulnerable and changing one. American businesses were booming and started doing trade all over the world, much like Great Britain had done in the previous century. This bolstered the use of English as the language of global trade. But at the same time, American culture was being exported heavily through music and film. The advent of jazz, rock n’ roll and other popular music from both the USA and UK infiltrated the culture of people everywhere, making English more than just the language of business, but the language of entertainment for the masses. Hollywood was also booming with popular films exported worldwide, and then in the 1960’s the counter-culture movement arrived with social change and the hippie movement sweeping across the USA and Europe. Which brings us to the next point:
3) The coolness factor. English is used across the world to signify a certain lifestyle or culture linked to American-style success or entertainment, or sometimes to signify a certain British quality. Advertisers use it all over the world in multi-national markets to sell their products in this way. But, it is also the most common language used in the film and music industry. Big-budget movies and everyone’s favorite classic films are mostly produced in English. In music, if a band wants to become popular or famous, they will produce their work in English as well. Maybe it’s because English will reach a wider audience, or maybe because English is taken more seriously as an element of good pop music. And then there are sports—American-invented sports today like BMX and skateboarding, and even basketball, have an entire vocabulary in English, and many of the best athletes in those fields are English-speaking—even if they have been recruited from abroad!
4) Technology. At the same time that the USA was becoming the world’s business superpower, the internet was also invented in the USA. This created an entire lexicon for computers and technology that was invented in English. Computer keyboards are suited for writing languages using the Latin alphabet, and the hardware for all our smart technology uses English words that have become commonly used around the world, as there was no other alternative in place when the technology spread like fire to the corners of the Earth. The world of science is also dominated by English for much the same reason: historically, universities publishing important research were doing so in English, and as a scientist today, any serious publication must be done in English. With science and technology playing such a big role in our lives today, English won’t be going anywhere soon.
5) The snowball effect. Now that English is so widespread across the internet, on the radio, in schools and in the business world, it is hard to escape. It is well known that in order to get a good job in today’s global market, speaking English is becoming a requirement more often than not. That’s why students and more adults than ever are taking private lessons, taking language immersion holidays and studying English to become as fluent as they can. It is not a guarantee of success, but it certainly does help!
Some people cite other reasons for the popularity of the English language, such as that it is “easy to learn” or that is evolves with our changing times. Some people long for the days when every country spoke their own language, and English was an eccentricity for language experts. But one thing is fairly certain: English will continue to grow as the world’s dominant language. But for how long?
Are you learning English for work or pleasure?
Have you noticed an increase in the use of English in your country?
We love to hear your comments!
*much of the information in this article originally appeared here, in the ESL Languages Blog.