We, humans, are social animals i.e. we cannot survive in isolation and need the company of our fellow humans to do so. We share our thoughts and ideas by using language, our primary source of communication. It separates us from animals, our cohabitants on the earth. Presently, there are around 6,500 languages spoken in the world today; some are spoken and understood by millions of people in different regions while others are used by only a few thousand. Each and every one of them makes the world a diverse and beautiful place.
Out of this huge variety of languages, some languages like English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian are spoken more than the others because of a large number of native speakers. With around 25% of the global population speaking it, English is the fastest-spreading language in human history and is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide—that’s every fourth person in the world. In countries like the U.S. and Australia, there are close to 385 million native speakers, formerly colonized nations such as India and Nigeria have about a billion fluent speakers while millions of people around the world have studied it as a second language. On the Internet, an estimated 565 million people use it.
In today’s world, English is the language of science, aviation, computers, diplomacy, and tourism. Given its overwhelming popularity in everyday communication, academia, business, and entertainment, it is no surprise that English is the official language of 53 countries and is called a global language or lingua franca by people all over the world. In a large number of countries, it has become a medium of communication in domains such as government, the law courts, the media, and the educational system.
This means you hear it on television spoken by people from all over the world. Wherever you travel in the world, you see English signs, billboards and advertisements. Whenever you enter a hotel or restaurant in any foreign city, they will understand English, and it will have an English menu. Whether you’re working in California, Berne or Beijing or travelling in New Delhi, Melbourne or Christchurch, knowledge of English helps you knock down a lot of barriers, including cultural ones, all over the world. The knowledge of the habits and customs of other countries allows us to understand ourselves and others.
English is the international language of business, and it’s increasingly gaining further clout as international trade expands every year, bringing new countries into contact. Most international business meetings and international trade agreements are conducted and concluded in the language.
English also opens the hallowed doors of the academic world in a large number of countries all over the world. It allows you to study with the top scholars. Western universities are attracting more and more visiting professors, scholars and students from the world over, and their common working language is English.
Today, the English language has become the leading language of international discourse in the 21st century and is an apt symbol for the themes of progress, identity, globalization and diversification.
Looking at all this, it completely befuddles the mind as to how this language of the sceptred isle rapidly becoming the first global lingua franca?
Presently, the English language is the most widely taught foreign language in over 100 countries, such as Germany, Spain, China, Russia, Egypt and Brazil. In such countries, it often displaces another language in the process.
The Origin of English
English is a West Germanic language which is named after the Angles, an ancient Germanic peoples who migrated to the region of the British Isles that later became known as England. After arrival from northern Europe in the 5th century, the language began to spread around and conquered parts of Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and southern Scotland. After the Norman invasion of 1066, the language spread throughout the Scottish lowlands with the fleeing English nobles. From the 12th century, it crossed the Irish Sea and Ireland gradually fell under its spell.
Beginning with the pioneering voyages of the English explorers in the 16th century, to the Americas, Asia, and the Antipodes, the movement of English around the world commenced and the expansion continued with the 19th century colonial developments in Africa and the South Pacific.
Since the 17th century, English spread and gained adherents around the world because of the worldwide influence of the British Empire initially and the United States of America later. During the 19th century, British political imperialism sent English around the globe so that it became a language ‘on which the sun never sets’. Through all types of printed and electronic media of these countries, it has become the leading language of professional contexts such as science, law and navigation.
A language needs a strong power base to progress as an international medium of communication. Its success on the international stage rides piggyback on the success of its users. This is precisely what happened with the English and the British Empire.
The Spread Of English
The dominance of a language is very closely tied to the economic, cultural and technological power of its users. The power of its people – especially their political and military power, is the chief reason behind the rise of any language as an international language.
After the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the predominantly agrarian and rural English society became more industrialized and urban. So much so that, by the beginning of the 19th century, Britain became the world’s leading industrial and trading country. By 1900, the USA’s population (then approaching 100 million) exceeded that of any Western European country, and its economy was the most productive and the fastest growing in the world. During the 20th century, the world presence of English was sustained and promoted almost single-handedly by the economic supremacy of the fast-rising American superpower. Politics as the chief driving force was replaced by economics and the language behind the US dollar was English.
The spread of the clout and influence of the English language was helped in no small measure by the setting up of international organisations such as the League of Nations (1920), the United Nations (1945), World Bank (1945), UNESCO (1946), UNICEF (1946), the W H O (1948), the NATO (1940), International Atomic Energy Agency (1957) and the European Union (1993). All these organizations comprised the nearly whole population of the world and their common means of communication was the old suspect, the English language!!
Besides, the independence movements of the mid-20th century led to a massive increase in the number of new nations, and this process continued steadily until the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s. This was the first time in known history that so many nations needed to talk to each other so much, and so many people wished to travel to so many places. All this caused a huge strain for the conventional resources of translating and interpreting to handle because the need for more widespread bilingualism had never been greater, to ease the burden placed on the few professionals around. The need for a global language was felt the most in these times and English fitted the bill perfectly! Call it providence or what you will, the language was ‘at the right place, at the right time.’
All this while, many newly independent states adopted English as an official or semi-official language. Presently, the language is now represented in each continent, and in islands of the three major oceans such as Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean and many islands like Fiji and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. This spread of representation makes real the application of the label ‘global language’.
English in the Present
The need for a common language for communicating emerged strongly only in the 20th century, especially in the 1950s. The United Nations, the chief international forum for political communication, was set up in 1945 and was followed by other international organisations. The present membership of the UN is 195, the largest gathering of the countries of the world in known history. Though the body has five official languages, English, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese, the only way to facilitate seamless communication and cut down on the vast amount of interpretation/translation and clerical work required, was to adopt English as the single lingua franca.
The international academic and business communities too felt the need for a global language as without the availability of a common language, they couldn’t do or achieve much. So, they also turned to English to facilitate the needful.
The growth in international contacts would not have been possible or would have been very slow at the most, without the phenomenal growth in modern communication and air transportation. These two have provided the circumstances and required thrust for the growth of English as a global language.
Presently, the facility of a lingua franca to serve global human relations and needs is appreciated by millions all over the world and as a result, English has penetrated deeply into the international domains of political life, business, safety, communication, entertainment, the media and education.
English in the Indian Context
The English language arrived on Indian shores in the early 1600s with the East India Company. It replaced Persian as the official language of the Company in 1835. Most high schools, set up in the 1840s and the 1850s, offered English language instruction in some subjects. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras universities were set up in 1857 where English was the medium of instruction. Driven in part by the gradually increasing hiring of Indians in the Indian Civil Services, the spread of the English language increased throughout India from 1858 to 1947. By the time, India gained independence in 1947, English was the only functional lingua franca in the country. At that time, less than 0.1% of the total population, spoke English as its first language.
Though the Indian government declared Hindi as the first official language, English is used for some communication as a supplement. Presently, English is an official language of 7 states and 5 UTs and also the additional official language of 7 states and 1 UT. Also, the sole official language of the Indian Judiciary is English only.
Since independence, the language has prospered phenomenally in the country and according to the 2011 Census, nearly 129 million or 10.6% Indians spoke English. It is the second-most spoken language in India.
People may like it or not but it is a well-known fact that due to the prominence and usage of the language and the desire for English-language education, now English is the de facto national language of India.
Why Know and Learn English?
By now, we know that English is the language of international communication. It is also the language of science, law, aviation, computers, diplomacy, media, tourism and the internet. Some reasons to know and learn English are listed below:
1. English is the Language of International Communication
English may not be the most spoken language in the world, but it is the official language of 53 countries and spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people across the globe. As it is the most common second language in the world, it means that two people who come from different countries will generally be using English as a common language to communicate.
In order to succeed in the multinational environment at one’s doorstep in the present world, everyone needs to know and learn the language to communicate with diverse people from all over the world. This is true whether one’s travelling, doing business, or communicating with others on social media.
Much of the technical terminology comprises of English words, and if one wishes to learn about the latest developments and discoveries from around the world, he/she shall read about them in journals and research reports published in English, no matter whether the scientists who wrote them are from India, Ghana or Sweden. The knowledge of good conversational English helps one to network comfortably and make important contacts at various meetings, conferences and seminars.
2. English is the Language of Academia
English is also essential in the field of education. In many countries, children are taught and encouraged to learn English as a second language. Even in countries where it is not an official language, many syllabi in science and engineering are written in English.
In fact, English as a medium of instruction is becoming an increasingly popular model of teaching. The reasons may be varied. Sometimes, educational institutions choose to use the English language because it is a commonly spoken language in that particular region, but also sometimes because the institutions seek to attract students who, or their guardians, believe that studying in English, a highly sought-after and employable skill, makes them more employable in the global world.
Furthermore, English is generally thought to be the language of higher education. Several of the world’s top-ranked universities conduct their studies in English. As English is the predominant language in science and international research, most research studies in any given scientific field will be written in it as well. At the university level, students in many countries study almost all their subjects in English so that the material is more accessible to them.
In the century just gone by, the number of scientific papers written in English far outweighed the number of papers written in the native language of the researchers. For this reason alone, having a working knowledge of English is incredibly important to those working in the scientific sphere.
3. English is the Primary Language of the Press
More newspapers, books, magazines and journals are published and printed in English than in any other language. Whichever corner of the world you might be in, chances are that you will find some English newspapers, magazines and books available. The domination of English in international communication is underlined by the fact that you will have access to more information on nearly every subject.
In the world of literature too, English rules! A person would be able to read many great works of literature in their original versions only if he/she knows English well. Of course, a huge body of great literature has been originally written in French, Spanish, Sanskrit, Greek, Chinese, and several other languages, nevertheless, a good portion of the classic literary canon is made up of works that were first written in English. And translations are not able to do justice to the magic of great writers and poets like William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Shelley, Keats, Byron, T.S.Eliot, W.B.Yeats etc.
4. English is the Language of Business
Learning English can really be a game-changer in a person’s life as its importance in the international marketplace cannot be understated. English skills help a person in any business venture he/she may choose to venture in and it’s especially true if the person is working in a multinational company or may move from the local to international scale in the future. A visit to offices of private companies, governmental organizations, or even math or engineering companies, would expose a person to the pervasive usage of English at the workplace.
English is the dominant business language and is a necessity for people to speak this language if they wish to enter a global workforce. It is considered so due to the reason that it is the de facto language of the United States and the official language of the UK, Canada, India and South Africa among others. So, whether you’re a business owner, employee or student, English is incredibly important to succeed in your chosen domain.
Research from all over the world shows that most cross-border business communication is often conducted in English and several international companies expect employees to be fluent in English. Many, if not the most, of these companies hire professional staff only after knowing whether they are good at English or not. It’s not uncommon for multinationals to consider their staff well educated only if they possess fluency in speaking, writing and reading English. Some global corporations that have mandated English as their official corporate language are Nokia, Renault, Samsung, Daimler-Chrysler, Airbus, Technicolor, Fast Retailing, SAP, and Microsoft etc.
5. Learning English provide Access to more of the Internet
According to a report by Education First, English is the language of the internet, with more than half of its content written in English. Even other languages sites often provide the option to translate the site. Russian language, with a claim to around 6% of websites, comes a distant second. An estimated 565 million people use the internet every day, and nearly 52 % of the world’s most visited websites are displayed in the English language.
The amount of educational content on the internet is probably even more heavily skewed toward English dominance. Learning English gives access to over half the content on the internet. This amounts to billions of pages of information that may not be available otherwise!
Besides, several of the world’s largest tech companies, which are world leaders in their domains, are based in English speaking countries only.
6. Knowledge of English gives Access to the World of Entertainment
As per UNESCO, “a look at the languages used in the top most popular films reveals that there is a clear and almost undisputed predominance of the English language.”
The knowledge of English opens up millions of movies, television shows, and games for a person’s sheer enjoyment as most of the world’s mainstream commercial entertainment is in this language only. And if someone wants to work in the entertainment industry on any date in the future, English is even more essential. Watching English programmes on TV and movies are a great way to practice one’s command of the language.
Knowledge of English gives access to a great wealth of entertainment and acquire a better understanding of the cultural world around. It also does away with the reliance on translations and subtitles anymore to enjoy one’s favourite books, songs, films and TV shows.
English is the language of Hollywood, the home of the biggest entertainment industry in the world, where the biggest television and music industries on the planet are based. As such, it is useful and even necessary to understand the language. Due to the reach and sheer size of Hollywood in global media, an enormous amount of films, TV shows and popular songs are written in English.
Besides, most popular films and music awards such as the Oscars, Grammys, BAFTA, MTV Video Music, People’s Choice, BRIT Awards etc. are all based in English.
7. English Is Very Useful for International Travel
Today, the whole world has become a global village and more and more people are crisscrossing it like never before. Possessing good English communication skills makes it far easier to travel the world. More often than not, plane announcements, train timetables, emergency information and street signs are available in English. At any travel booking site, a booking option in English would surely be present. For navigating airports and other transportation hubs, knowledge of English will suffice. It also makes it easy to get assistance and help in most regions of the world.
English is also very handy almost wherever you go, for business or leisure. Even if you don’t find other travellers or local people who speak your mother tongue, you are sure to find someone who understands some English words. Memorizing a few English phrases before travelling will help you get around.
Thus, in light of the arguments provided in support of the relevance of English as a global language, investing in knowing and learning the language seems to be a very good option.