How did English become the world’s most widely spoken language?

Five hundred years ago, between five and seven million people spoke English, almost all of them living in the British Isles. Now, anywhere up to 1.8 billion people around the world speak English.

How did this happen?

The growth of English has nothing to do with the structure of the language, or any inherent qualities, and everything to do with politics.

The British Empire

After developing for almost a millennium on the British Isles, English was taken around the world by the sailors, soldiers, pilgrims, traders and missionaries of the British Empire. By the time anything resembling a language policy was introduced, English had already reached all corners of the globe.

For example, English-speaking puritans were not the only Europeans to arrive in North America: Spanish, French, Dutch and German were also widely spoken. All of the languages were reinforced by waves of immigration from Europe in the following centuries.

British-Empire

But in the process of designing a “United” States, the USA’s founders knew the importance of language for national identity. English was the majority language and had to be encouraged. As recently as the start of the 20th Century, several states banned the teaching of foreign languages in private schools and homes. The U.S. Supreme Court only struck down restrictions on private language education in 1923.

Even today, English is not the official language of the USA, but there is no question that it is the dominant language in practice.

And it wasn’t just America that said “hello” to English. At one point in the early twentieth century, the British Empire expanded across almost a quarter of the world’s surface, not including the USA. According to a popular saying, “the sun never set on the British Empire”.

Nowadays, the sun has set on the empire, but English remains an important language in every single former colony.

Gone but not forgotten

In most of the British Empire, the main goal was trade so fewer Britons actually settled. This explains why English did not come to dominate colonies in Asia and Africa, where it was the language of business, administration and education, but not the language of the people.

British-Empire-colonies

To this day, English has a key administrative role in these former colonies. For a long time, access to English meant access to education, whether in the mission schools in Africa or the first universities in India. This created an English-speaking elite in some of the world’s most populous countries, and elites are good at self-preservation.

Post-independence, many countries became officially multilingual for the first time, but the various groups needed a language for communication with each other and with other nations. Again, that was English. English is now the dominant or official language in 75 territories: a direct legacy of the British Empire.

In countries where large settler colonies were formed, such as Australia, Canada and the USA, native languages and cultures have been pushed to near-extinction by the presence of English.

It was not the first language of European colonialism; Portuguese and Dutch left the continent earlier. 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). So something must have happened more recently to give the language its unique international status.

Without the rise of the USA in the 20th Century, the world’s language landscape would look very different.

Two world wars and the rise of the USA

While Europe was rebuilding in the years after 1945, the USA boomed. American businesses picked up where the British East India Company had left off centuries before, taking English around the world as a language of trade. The influence of American business, combined with the tradition of English left around the world by the British Empire, have made English the number one language of international trade in the 21st Century. All of the world’s top business schools now teach in English.

English is now the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the 25 EU Member States where it is not an official language. The 6 states where English is not number one also show the importance of politics in language policy: Russian is the most widely spoken foreign language in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; Croatian the most commonly spoken in Slovenia; and Czech the most widely spoken in Slovakia.

americana-montage

But the cultural legacy of the post-war decades is also very important to the growth of English as a world language.

As well as sending money across the Atlantic, the USA provided the soundtrack through rock and roll, jazz and, later, disco and hip hop. Hollywood movies became global sensations and American television series became cultural reference points. American culture was everywhere, radiating confidence and success; just the things for a world that had been ravaged by war.

It wasn’t just American music that brought English into the world’s discotheques and homes. British bands including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, the Police or Led Zeppelin ensured that Britannia ruled the airwaves, if not the waves.

The hippy movement came from San Francisco and London. Music festivals including the Isle of Wight and Woodstock became iconic for a whole generation, whether English speakers or not.

This “soft power” continues today…

English is “cool”

Advertisers pride themselves on riding the cultural zeitgeist; creating consumer desire through making products sexy. One of the ways they do this is through using English words. Check out Der Spiegel’s German examples, La Razon’s Spanish examples, Slate.fr’s French ones and La Repubblica’s Italian ones.

Now-hiring

Many examples of English in advertising come from multinational companies, who wish to keep their message consistent across markets, but some examples are local firms looking for that elusive element of glamour that English can bring. Of course, this happens in English too: haute couture and Eau de Toilette sound much sexier untranslated.

Bands release their work in English to reach the largest possible audience. Film-makers too. This invisible pressure to produce creative works in English adds to the cultural momentum the language developed in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

The style-conscious language of extreme sports is English: snowboarders ollie, fakie and rodeo whether they are Canadian, Swiss or Japanese.

The word “cool” itself has been assimilated into various languages.

Science & Technology

The global power of the USA coincided with the birth of popular computing, and English is the language of the technological revolution and the internet. Consider a keyboard for example; they are designed for Latin characters, so speakers of Asian languages (particularly) use complicated techniques to enter words.

What happens inside the devices is also dominated by English. The USA remains the most innovative technological nation and, because of the language policy of the nation’s founders, English is the dominant language.

Pull not push

Apart from the efforts of some early colonisers, hundreds of years ago, the success of English has more to do with “pull” than “push”. People in British colonies who wanted an education would receive that education in English. Artists who want to reach the largest audience for their work can do that in English. If you want to trade internationally, you will need to speak English. And you don’t have to speak English to have a successful career, but it certainly helps.

Will English remain number one?

Some people suggest that English has become ubiquitous because it is “easy to learn” or especially flexible, but a glance backwards suggests that this is irrelevant. Despite a devilishly complex case system, Latin was Europe’s most influential language for over a thousand years (and its descendents are still going strong). People learned Latin then for the same reasons they learn English now: to get ahead in life and have access to knowledge. Yet now Latin is only spoken by priests and scholars.

Languages and borders change over time, but English is likely to remain the world’s number one language during our lifetimes.

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  • Chris

    As an international teacher, i agree with this article. There is no serious challenge to the dominance of the English language around the world. Some countries, however, will never see more than 1% of their populations speak English fluently: France, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Thailand and all Spanish-speaking nations.

    • Laecio

      Chris, you are wrong about the second part of your statement. Also, how did you come up with this statistic?
      24% of Brazilians can communicate in English, of course not all of them fluently.

    • Edward J. Cunningham

      Only 1 percent of French are fluent in French, and that’s never going to change? I know that there are French citizen who will not only disagree with this assertion, but will be offended by it.

    • Martin

      This is mostly true, but I believe might be also part of a trend among the younger generation to speak more English.

  • Chris

    Dear Laecio, Thank you for your comment. If you Google “What percent of Brazilians can speak English?” then I am sure you will retract your statement that 24% of Brazilians can communicate in English. God Bless! – Chris

    • Edward J. Cunningham

      Keep in mind that the key phrase is “can communicate”, not “are fluent” in English. By that same token, I would argue that more than 25% of native-born Anglos in the United States “can communicate” in Spanish.

  • neil_nachum

    Good article. A rare balanced story by an advocate of English instruction. I’m a retired English teacher who learned an alternative second language. I’ve also met about a hundred other professional teachers and translators who advocate this 135 year old solution. It is VERY difficult to prove, but linguistic dominance is PART of the problem of revolving cycle of war, which of cause you don’t want: http://www.EnglishTeacherforEsperanto.blogspot.com

  • Mac

    “After developing for almost a millennium on the British Isles”

    This very much skips over the colonizing nature of Anglo-Saxon and later English on the British Isles in relation to the Celtic languages of firstly Brythonic then Cornish, Cumbrian, Gaelic, Irish, Manx and Welsh, and the Germanic languages of Scots and Norn.

    Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Scots continue as community languages whilst the others are spoken as revived languages.

    English was born as a colonizing language.

    • Hi Mac,

      That’s a good point.

      DId you know that the word “welsh” itself originally meant “foreign” in Old English? The irony being that the Welsh (along with the other Celtic cultures you mention) were on the British Isles first!

      Alex – ESL Education

    • Edward J. Cunningham

      Mac is right that English was born as a “colonizing” language, but the people it was intended to colonize were the English themselves. The reason the grammar of English—which used to be as complicated as other Germanic languages—became simpler was to make it easier for the French-speaking Normans to communicate with their subjects. This is also the reason why the English words for the actual type of food eaten (by the Norman overlords) like “beef” or “poultry” have French origins while the names of the animals that produce those foods (raised by the English subjects) are different.

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  • ENGLISH

    Yeah, the anglosphere rules!

    • geo

      Not for very long.

  • Ove Jan Linde Refvik

    Why english is the most spoken language in the world: The british empire had colonies, all the colonies were taught english, no one else did this terrible robbery of peoples identity, english was then spoken in more countries than and other language. And then they decided it would be easier to force english upon the rest of the world, than to teach England and it’s colonies and other language. The End.

  • linda

    it nice to study in the abroad

  • Wilzen Du Bermoy

    Hello, Alex. I would like to use your blog entry as classroom reading material for my English class. I tried looking for your author information here and I found none (for citation purposes). I would like to know at least your educational or professional background if possible? I cannot post my e-mail address here, is it possible if we chat via Facebook? Thank you so much.

    • AlessandraESL

      Hello Wilzen, unfortunately Alex is no longer working with us. Is there anything we can do to help?
      Have a nice day!

      • Wilzen Du Bermoy

        HI Alessandra! 🙂 Ahmm, just want to know her background like if he’s linguistics major or something since I used his material for my class. 🙂

        • AlessandraESL

          Hi Wilzen, yes sure. He actually studied Linguistic at University so you can definitely use his material for your classes. have a nice day! 🙂

  • TruthBeatsLies

    Hello everybody, wherever you are…!

  • Sebastien Dubois

    Who is the bafoon who wrote this blog? I tuned out after the 2nd/3rd paragraph. You don’t make such an incorrect and unqualified opening statement so as to adamantly rule out that theory as a possibility and then proceed with your confirmation bias of a blog. Such specious commentary gives me reason to believe the author is french and using a pen name. To save wasting words I can easily and succinctly answer the question: BECAUSE ENGLISH HAS ADAPTED AND MOVED WITH THE TIMES. Whereas I’m not one for the bastardisation of the English language and the Estuary ‘english’ now prevalent in the ‘burbs today; I still acknowledge that diction evolves and that pop culture dictates alot of it. English simply didn’t take itself too seriously and adapted – it came up with a word for anyTHING and any circumstance. Many languages cheat or use the limited vocabulary they have to say the more accurate, same thing that is the English version. The English language is vastly more complex than any other. Almost any electronic goods operating manual will show you the English translation as being longer than the other languages. So many rules that it may almost even seem ridiculous to some cultures. However, it will almost always be more accurate. My daughter for example is learning Mandarin and far from what I thought being true that it is very difficult, it actually is relatively easy to learn

    • SarahESL

      Hello Sebastien,
      thanks for your comment but I kindly ask you to not insult our bloggers . The blog article was written by the author Alex Hammond, who is not French but a native speaker of the English language and also has a background in English linguistics. Yes, of course it’s true that the English language is a complex language that has adapted and changed during the times. As written in the article, it was also caused by political and historical developments.
      Kind regards,
      Sarah
      ESL Education

      • Sebastien Dubois

        Hello Sarah,

        Thank you for your time in responding. I did not insult anybody nor even overtly disparage. I make a habit of never being one to start throwing insults around. My opinion still stands and the author is free to take exception to it.

        Regards

        Sebastien

      • STELLBHOY

        One fact that is not mentioned in this Blog is where English truly originates from and is infact Originated from Ancient German. I find this Blog well done and informative

        Thank you

        • Silvia.capra.esl

          Hi Stellbhoy! Thanks for your interest in our blog 🙂

          Silvia, ESL – Education group

  • Alex Escomu

    400.000 Esperanto learners in one year… just on Duolingo 😛 Anyone can learn Esperanto home looking up for course on Google… can’t usually say that for English or ethnic languages