Across the world today, more than 1 billion people are studying English. 750 million of those use it as a foreign language, using it for travel or work, but for 350 million English is their second language, which they speak, and use every day, alongside their mother tongue. Whole industries and businesses now operate almost entirely in English across the world, such as aviation and technology. And in the past, some countries such as Germany have repeatedly held discussions about seriously adopting it as an official language (Here’s an example). But why exactly is English so in vogue? And is it anything at all to do with the English?
Well, one of English’s main selling points is the fact that relatively speaking, it is quite a simple language to learn. It uses a basic 26-letter version of the Latin alphabet with no accents or characters, which instantly makes it more accessible than, say, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. It’s also a language that boasts an enormous amount of influence from other languages and seamlessly takes on loanwords of all sorts, such as: ‘bungalow’, ‘Schadenfreude’, ‘typhoon’, ‘jazz’, and ‘balaclava’. All learners will recognise some familiar words when learning the language. English words are also generally quite short and consist of just a few syllables with very few consonant clusters, which makes them easier to pronounce and more memorable (compare English: ‘grumble’ with Armenian: ‘khrthmndzal’). And as for grammar, of course, then English is remarkably straightforward. It has a strict Subject-Verb-Object word order, and each verb has a maximum of only four different forms (play, plays, played, playing), compared to over 60 different tenses and endings in Hungarian.
But in the simple grammar championships, English would hardly be in the running for top place. Languages like Afrikaans, Esperanto and in many ways even Mandarin Chinese are far more straightforward. English has a completely illogical, unphonetic and unpredictable spelling system that has caused disproportionately higher rates of dyslexia in the English-speaking world than elsewhere. There are 13 different tenses in English, all with entirely different and highly nuanced meanings which can baffle even the most experienced language learner at times, and is often used as a way to tell whether or not someone is a native speaker. Word stress is unmarked in English, unlike Spanish, Italian or Greek. Its patterns are highly unpredictable and can seriously affect the meaning of a word (compare the difference between an ‘orange TREE’ and an ‘ORANGE tree’). But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is English’s enormous vocabulary. Its wealth of synonyms, idioms, expressions and 101 ways to basically say the same thing, just slightly differently, even defeats most native speakers who will be confronted by unfamiliar words right the way throughout their whole lives. So perhaps truly mastering English is not quite such a fait accompli.
But do people learning English even feel that mastering it is one of their priorities? Statistically, it is only a very small minority that list Anglophone cultural immersion as one of their goals. The main reason why so many millions of people enrol in English courses year on year is simple: it’s a practical way to communicate with most people around the globe. Now the edge that English has over other languages on that front is that it’s possible to do that with next to no grammar, and still make yourself understood. It’s possible to speak it with almost any accent without raising any eyebrows. And some of what might be seen as “mistakes” are now so deeply engrained in non-native varieties of the language, that they are even enshrined in official documents produced by organisations such as the European Union.
Arguably this could have happened with several languages, but the reality is that it is English that has assumed this role. It’s hard to say precisely why, but there are a few factors that might have aided it along. As English is spoken by so many different people and with no clear central or main dialect, English speakers have gotten used to hearing and understanding all sorts of different accents, dialects and varieties. As a result, English speakers rarely correct errors or react particularly strongly when they hear them, which also helps to make learning the language a more positive experience for students.
How long this situation will continue, though, is honestly hard to say. There are a number of factors holding English in place, not least of all the global popularity of English-language music and film. The way that technology and especially the internet is designed also hugely advantages English speakers, given the abundance of information available solely in that language.
The question is, though, if English were to be replaced as the global lingua franca, which language would take its place?
In 2012 Alex Rawlings was named Britain’s most multilingual student after being tested for fluency in 11 different languages. He now lives in Budapest where he is learning Hungarian, and works as a teacher of English, German, Russian and Greek. He is heavily involved in the online language learning community, and helps organise annual International Polyglot Conferences worldwide. He blogs at www.rawlangs.com, and tweets at @RawLangs_Blog.