Why has the English language become a global leader of languages?

Nowadays, more than 1.5 billion people on Earth are able to communicate in English to some extent. But why is that? Why has English become an international lingua franca of the world and not any other language? Who are the users of the language and can we divide them into different classes? All of these questions will be answered in this article.

world

First of all, we should go back to the beginning where the spread of English began. Since the beginning of the 17th century, many people from England, Scotland and Ireland migrated into the “New World” – U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These newly-discovered continents attracted many people mainly because they believed that they can find a better, richer, and more comfortable life there. This relatively large migration of native English speakers caused those dialects that “travelled” with them to develop into American and Antipodean varieties of English that we know today. Principally, the vocabulary expanded through contact with the indigenous Indian (U.S.), Aboriginal (Australia) and Maori (New Zealand) populations. All of these countries belong to the first group of Englishes, the users of which use the English as a native language (ENL). As a result, in these countries, English is used as a mother tongue, moreover, ENL represents the most prestigious variety of English.

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Queen Victoria

As the power of the British Empire was growing in the 18th and 19th centuries, the imperialistic ambitions were getting bigger and bigger. Mainly during the reign of Queen Victoria which lasted for over 64 years (1837-1901) the British Empire had an unmatched position in the world, both economically and military. Therefore, the nation had enough power to colonise Asia and Africa in order to spread its influence around the world and to confirm its unmatched position as a world leader. Consequently, countries like Pakistan, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Singapore, Philippines and many others use English as an official language. It means that even though they have their “own” mother tongue, as a result of British colonisation in the past, they use English in various official institutions around the country. Therefore, the umbrella term under which these countries belong is called English as a second language (ESL) since they have their own language, but they also use English as a “second”, formal language.

The last group is the group of countries which use English as a foreign language (EFL). In these countries English has no official position throughout the nation, however, it is usually taught at schools. Basically, we can say that it covers all the countries in which the British Empire did not have influence in the past. For example, the countries of Eastern Europe and South America.

The spread of English was portrayed by many linguists, however, the most famous and influential of them is the one by Braj Kachru (below). Kachru put our three groups of Englishes – ENL, ESL, EFL – into three concentric circles. He put the first group of the Englishes (ENL) into the “Inner Circle”. The second group (ESL) belongs into the “Outer Circle”. The third group has its place in the “Expanding Circle”. The following picture will help you to better imagine what we have been talking about all the time.

kachru
Kachru’s Concentric Circles of English

As you probably already understood, the spread of language and history work together. Probably the most important reason why English has its global position today, is the past of the Great Britain which is closely connected to colonisation.

However, the history is not the only factor which influenced the spread of English. The following factors could be an example:

Internal political reasons – English provides a neutral means of communication between a nation’s different ethnic groups (e.g. in India)

External economic reasons – USA’s dominant economic position works as a magnet for international business and trade, and organisations wishing to develop international markets are forced to work through English

Practical reasons – English is the language of international air traffic control, international emergency services, policing and maritime communications

Entertainment reasons – English is the main language of popular music, video games, home computers, satellite broadcasting, as well as of such international illegal activities as pornography and drugs

Personal reasons – the ability of speaking English is often perceived as conferring higher status on the speaker

The aim of this article was to show you how  English spread around the globe and how history and many other factors put English into the position of global leader among the languages.

by Jaroslav Lubocky

 

Source: Jenkins, J. 2015. Global Englishes. A resource book for students. 3rd edition. Routledge.

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