In a world of diverse, beautiful and evolving languages, one seems to be spoken more widely than any other – English. But is this tongue from a tiny island nation really capable of taking over the world? Some would argue that it already has.
Globally Speaking, English is Everywhere
English is recognised as an official language in 54 countries and 27 territories – mostly states formerly under the control of the British Empire. English is also spoken as the de facto or de jure language in places maintaining strong trade connections with the USA and UK, spreading the adoption further.
English tops the list of official languages spoken around the world. While it may not have the highest number of native speakers, it is the most popular second language, spread over every continent.
And the number of English speakers is growing. In 2006, it was believed that around 1 billion people spoke English around the world. Today, 1.8 billion people speak useful English – but only around 360 million of them are native speakers.
The growth of English might seem great for native speakers travelling and working overseas – but it’s not. The proliferation of the English language presents a deep, worrying problem for the world at large in an age where erasing history has never been easier.
The Internet is in English
The internet age has helped English words penetrate the most widely spoken languages around the world. English language websites account for 52.4% of the top 10 million websites in the world. Websites in the next closest language (German) account for only 6.3% of the top 10 million websites.
Of the 4.16 billion people in the world who use the internet, over 25% use English language websites. That’s more than 1 billion people, the majority of which do not speak English as their primary language. Suddenly it seems, English is the official language of the internet, too.
The homogenisation of language threatens to render the most vulnerable world languages extinct – a process accelerated by the connective nature of this new, internet-powered world. Language is extremely powerful, and its diversity is part of the beauty within it. Losing that diversity could diminish and disempower the entire human species.
The Cultural Impact of English Proliferation
Before you ask “so what?” picture this the other way around – with English, or your own native language being muscled out. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Why is it so bad to have one global language, and why would English be any worse than Chinese, or German – or any other language?
The language itself doesn’t really matter. The fact that English is the language is almost irrelevant (almost – unless you know your history). What really matters is the erasure of history, culture and language in favour of English.
No language is superior; all fall foul of contradictions, imperfections, complexities and a lack of words. English is notoriously difficult and weird, even to native speakers. And it carries a lot of cultural baggage, spread around the world through colonialism and later through film, music and exported western culture.
Despite the way it muscled out native languages in so many countries, English became cool – because of its ties to celebrity and stardom from the golden age of cinema. But in some countries, English academic prowess has become synonymous with success and social mobility – like in South Korea. It’s more than a language now; English is a symbol.
English isn’t a bad language – but its proliferation is having negative effects. When a language becomes inescapable, the world’s vibrancy is dulled a little more – a sad result of globalisation that only begs the question “why English?”
Even though English seems to win out over other languages, it simply isn’t good enough to express everything – as bilinguals and multilingual people will tell you. Some of us revert to our mother tongue to express certain things; relief, comfort, love, pain – some people dream in their mother tongue, and wake to tell the story in English.
English offers just one way of encoding and deciphering the world. Different languages offer different perspectives – equally important, valid ones. While English doesn’t look set to dominate the whole planet, it’s coming very close – and some of the world’s most important cultural riches could be lost if it ever gets there.
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