Why Do So Many People Speak English?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Did you know that approximately 1.75 billion people speak English at a useful level worldwide? This figure is forecast to increase even further due to globalisation.
With its dominance in the world of business, international diplomacy, academia, and the internet, it’s no wonder that the English language is so widely spoken.
Aside from the modern day motives that maintain English as the language of global conversation, let’s take a look at the history of how its dominance began.
The Origins of the British Empire
Great Britain first created overseas settlements in the 16th century. Maritime expansion as a result of commercial ambitions and competition with France enabled a large empire to be established. By 1783, the British Empire had extensive overseas colonies stretching as far as North America and the West Indies.
In fact, by the end of the 18th century, the growth of the British Empire had rapidly accelerated with colonies present in parts of India, Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, and Australia.
Fellow Colonies Exercising Power
The British Empire wasn’t alone in establishing colonies. The French Colonial Empire colonised much of Canada and the U.S., and France had also succeeded in securing a global presence. In fact, French was the language of diplomacy and communication throughout the 19th and early 20th century.
Contention arose as the British and French empires struggled for control of North America and India. Increasingly antagonistic Anglo-French relations resulted in the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763. Ultimately, most of the French colonies established in North America, also known as New France, were lost to Great Britain.
The Spanish Empire was also present on a global scale and controlled a huge overseas territory including parts of Southern and Western America and parts of Asia. The Spanish language also gained a foothold throughout the world due to colonialism. In 1776, America declared independence from Great Britain, while decolonisation from the Spanish rule in America was declared in 1816.
Exponential Growth in the English Language
After American Independence, the British continued to establish colonies including much larger areas of the Indian subcontinent and Africa, Australia, New Zealand. After World War I Britain also colonised areas of the Middle East.
By 1922, the British Empire was at its height, covering almost a quarter of the Earth and about one fifth of the world’s population. In countries populated by English settlers, English officially replaced the previously dominant local languages. Areas that weren’t populated by settlers were instead controlled by military, commercial and administrative personnel.
As a result, English became a prestige language to facilitate communication.
The World Wars
It may be surprising to learn that WWI and WWII left Britain weakened and less interested in its empire. In fact, 1945 saw a steady decline in the British Empire.
Another result of the World Wars was the emergence of a stigma that was associated with the German language. Prior to this, German was a heritage language in America largely due to German speaking immigrants. There was a steep decline in the use of German, thus promoting English as the dominant language in the US.
In addition, English began to surpass French on a global scale in the 20th century.
After WWI, the US had increased its political influence in Europe due to its role in the war. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was written in both French and English, thus promoting English as the language of diplomacy.
After WWII, English emerged as the global language as the United States became a world superpower. The USA also played and continue to play a leading role in international institutions such as the United Nations established in 1945, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization created in 1949. The US assisted in post-war reconstruction efforts in Europe, and in turn greatly increased its political and economic influence over the world.
America as a Superpower
As America’s economic, military and political influences continued to rise, it also became home to many advances in science and technology. In fact, English became the dominant language of science and academic writings in the 20th century and continues to dominate the world of science today.
These advancements made mass communication possible, resulting in American movies, TV shows and music to be spread across the world. Due to the fact that English was the media industry language, it became a second language in many countries throughout the world.
Over the years, the global demand for English has increased as a result of the growing importance of the English language in many industries.
Globalisation and the English Language
Globalisation has further cemented the position of English as the international language in terms of both business and leisure.
With a rise in international travel and commerce, more and more people interact on a global scale. This is further accelerated by technology.
The internet has also played a pivotal role in its increase as English is the most common language online.
In a nutshell
In summary, the rise of the British Empire meant that English was spoken on a global scale. The collapse of the French and Spanish empires and the rise of America then added to that momentum.
Nowadays, English remains the global language due to technology, the media, the internet and globalisation. So, the question is - how long will English continue to be the most spoken language in the world?
Visit our British History & Revisionism section for more insightful resources.