Why did English become the ‘global language’? | by Kieran McGovern | The English Language: FAQ | Medium

Why did English become the ‘global language’?

Kieran McGovern
Mar 19, 2019 · 5 min read

More people speak Spanish than English as their first language. Nearly three three times as many speak Mandarin Chinese in their family homes. Yet few would dispute that English is the leading world language.

This is because English is the world’s lingua franca or common second language, as this table shows.

English is the most popular second language (L2)

English is the international language of business, commerce, science, medicine,and many other key areas. Even in diplomacy, where French once ruled supreme, English is now dominant in most regions of the world.

According to David Graddol’s extensive survey for the British Council, the number of non-native or second language speakers of English now outnumbers those of primary or native speakers.

international tourism is growing, but the proportion of encounters involving a native English speaker is declining (1.9). There were around 763 million international travellers in 2004, but nearly 75% of visits involved visitors from a non-English-speaking country travelling to a non-English-speaking destination. This demonstrates the … growing role for global English.

Increasingly, non native speakers use English as a

“practical tool” and also as a “working language” (Crystal 2003: 426), has emerged as a lingua franca used by millions of people to engage in a conversation with each other. (Tünde NAGY, 2016)

Why English?

Englishglobal language because of the power of the people who speak it”

The renowned linguist, David Crystal, suggests that “a language becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it.” The ‘power’ of English was initially based on political and military factors, most notably the expansion of the British Empire. Later the role of English as the language of the scientific, industrial, financial and economic revolutions further increased its influence.

Crystal stresses that the increasing importance of English is not because of the structure of the language itself. English, he points out, is not particularly accessible to speakers of other languages, with its eccentric spelling and pronunciation patterns — cough, for example. It also has the largest lexicon (number of words) of any European language. There are over a million by some estimates, though 3,000 will cover most situations.


Other linguists feel that Crystal undervalues the special nature of the English language. Robert McCrum argues that English “does a good job” in allowing non-native speakers to adapt to it. In an interview with the Boston Globe McCrum focuses on its ‘democratic’ nature:

Q. You make a distinction in the book between the imperial roots of English internationally, but the language not being imperious.

A. The French have always been very imperious. Whenever they have a cultural decision to make it’s always top down. With English, it’s always bottom up… implicitly … there’s a quality to the English language which is different from German or French or Chinese. That quality is approachability, usefulness, adaptability.

English is a Germanic language in its grammar, syntax and key vocabulary. Though only 30% of English words are Anglo Saxon, they make up around 70% of those used in common conversation. The top ten most commonly used verbs — be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get — are all irregular in that they do not follow the standard pattern of conjugation (paint, painted etc) This because they are survivors from old English.

What makes the English language flexible, however, is that it borrows heavily from other languages — particularly Latin, Greek and French. These ‘loanwords’ are either integrated through usage or disappear into obscurity.

Adopting loan words has been a useful evolutionary strategy for language survival. Just overthrown the government? Save on translation fees by writing the French coup d’etat on your application to rejoin the UN. Or perhaps something a little more soothing like from English, like regime change.

And sorry half-the-world those non alphabetic characters do not play nice with IT systems. It would be so much easier if you used our letters. We are happy to borrow your futon but are customers just can’t deal with (布団)

Bottom up

The Académie française is a committee made up of forty French writers and artists. These (men mostly, bien sûr) determine what is correct and incorrect French. A part of their mission is to resist linguistic invasion from the old foe, perfidious Albion. Stop using horrible English words like email they insist. What’s wrong with courriel? And don’t get us started on le weekend

Good luck with that, monsieur-dame. The payroll vote — sorry, les fonctionnaires — will adhere to your style book. But it’s the devil’s own work stopping the kids sur Snap.

The English language does not have august council determining what is or is not permissible. The only ‘official’ status for a specific word is inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary and the OED sees its task as

recording the entry of today’s new words into the {English} language. We use printed evidence of new words from magazines, newspapers, books, song lyrics, practical manuals — any published source. Slang and dialect words are also collected.

This is what McCrum calls the ‘bottom up’ nature of English. It leads to many quirks and inconsistencies. Why anglicize some loanwords but not others? Why pronounce the city Paris with a hard s but switch to French pronunciation when referring to the football team: Paris Saint Germain?

This glorious linguistic anarchy has been a source of frustration to some orderly minds. In the early twentieth century there was a determined effort to introduce a new world language, one without weird spellings and tricky wayward pronunciation rules.


A made-to-measure second language? Or nightmarish vehicle for thought control?

Polish linguist and pacifist, L.L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto (‘hope) which he believed could be an international lingua franca or second language. Because it had no irregular verbs and phonetic spelling esperanto was a ‘perfect’ language. It also had no associations with a particular nationality or country.

George Orwell’s aunt was an early proponent of Esperanto. She also supported its more militant wing, which insisted that the new language should replace the old ones. When he went to stay with her in Paris, she insisted on speaking Esperanto when he was hoping to practise his French.

It was the political element of some parts of the Esperanto movement which particularly disturbed Orwell. The attempt to control and direct language was in his view a central feature of totalitarianism. Newspeak — the language Orwell created for his dystopian novel, 1984, is clearly a variant on Esperanto, the ‘world language of peace’.


Was Orwell unfair to Zamenhof’s invented language? Esperanto has had some minor success. There are a significant number of fluent speakers of the language — though nobody is sure how many. Some say 100,000, others claim an improbable 2.5 million.

There are even Esperanto native or first language speakers, up to 1,000 according to some estimates. But these figures are still comparatively low. And Esperanto has never been an official secondary language of any country in the world.

As Latin lovers will know, there will always be a limited market for languages that are not widely spoken. English looks set to be the de facto official second language of the world for the foreseeable future

The English Language: FAQ

The vocabulary, grammar & history of English