Why is English the dominant world language?

1.4 billion speakers of English

English is spoken as a second or foreign language by an estimated 950 million people worldwide (Saville-Troike, 2006). This is in addition to the 427 million native speakers of English. But how did the English language reach the stage where it is used and understood, to a greater or lesser extent, by more than 1 in 7 of the world’s population?

The first stage of the global spread of the English language was the result of the empire building of Britain, otherwise known as imperialism. The second stage was the result of the cultural, political and economic preeminence of the USA, otherwise known as neo-imperialism.

The British Empire

At its height in 1922, the British Empire was the largest in history, covering a quarter of the Earth’s land area, with a population of over 450 million people.

The British Empire, circa 1922 (image courtesy of WikiMedia)

The primary aim of education in the colonies became the acquisition of the English language, and the future academic and financial success of those living in colonized countries came to depend mainly on their English language ability (Phillipson, 1992).

After World War II, when the colonized countries started to gain independence, the English language maintained its influence by being selected as an official or national language by “leaders who were themselves the products of colonial education” (Phillipson, 1992, p.182).

These factors contributed to English becoming either the sole dominant language, or an official language, in over 75 territories with a combined population of over 2.2 billion people (Crystal, 1997).

The American Empire

On July 4th, 1776, thirteen British colonies located along the Atlantic seaboard declared independence and founded the United States of America. The U.S. economy has since become the largest in the world, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

The global reach of America’s cultural, political and economic influence has contributed significantly to bolstering the dominant position of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries.

America has spawned a significant number of global musical influences, including Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Eminem, Madonna, and Bob Dylan. On a global stage, the economic and cultural dominance of Hollywood is unrivaled.

In the information age of the 21st century, a reported 45% of web-pages are written in English, a situation not hindered by the fact that 8 of the top 10 most visited websites in the world (as of Sept. 2012) are based in America.

The future?

In the 21st century, China is positioning itself to challenge America for the position of the number one economic power in the world, but whether this will translate to linguistic dominance remains to be seen.

Neither political, economic, cultural, technological nor military might alone can give one language international prominence. It takes a sustained combination of all these powers to achieve that. As a case in point, Japanese did not become a dominant language internationally (although it did increase in popularity), despite Japan’s incredible economic success from the 1960s to 1990s.

Having said this, linguistic world orders do change. English was preceded by Latin as the world’s dominant language, which was put in place by the Roman Empire and perpetuated by education and religion. But the days of Latin were cut short by the rise of the British and American empires described above.

It is theoretically possible that English itself will, at some future time, be succeeded by another language, promulgated by the economic, political and cultural might of its native speakers.

English belongs to everyone

The English language is now argued to belong to everyone who speaks it. Native speakers are said to have forfeited their right to exclusive ownership of English in a global context. Indeed, native speakers of English are outnumbered more than 2-to-1 by non-native speakers of the language. The fact that English now belongs to “everyone or to no-one” (Wardhaugh, 1987) would seem to imply that English will maintain its position as the global dominant language throughout the 21st Century and beyond.

Bibliography

  • Crystal, David (1997). English as a Global Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP.
  • Phillipson, Robert (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford, England: Oxford UP.
  • Saville-Troike (2006), Muriel. Introducing Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald (1987). Languages in Competition: Dominance, Diversity, and Decline. Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell.
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About Paul Raine

Paul has taught English as a foreign language in Japan since 2006, and obtained a masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign and Second Language in 2012. He has a wide range of experience in a variety of different teaching contexts, including conversation schools, junior and senior high schools, blue-chip companies, and colleges and universities. He is particularly interested in integrating technology with English language pedagogy. You can contact Paul on Twitter @paul_sensei or visit his homepage at paulsensei.com

20 Responses to Why is English the dominant world language?

  1. Pingback: Will language learning become unecessary in the future? - Page 3 - City-Data Forum

  2. Abby says:

    Great explanation! I was wondering why English had become the global language. I thought perhaps it had something to do with the fact that English uses less words and syllables, therefore using less paper, etc. If you look at a shampoo bottle, the instructions in English are always the shortest.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Abby, thanks for your comments. Scholars such as David Crystal suggest that the inherent characteristics of English have not greatly contributed to its status as a world language: “It is often suggested that there must be something inherently beautiful or logical about he structure of English, in order to explain why it is now so widely used. ‘It has less grammar than other languages’, some have suggested… Such arguments are misconceived” (David Crystal, English as a Global Language, p.7). I tend to agree with Crystal, and think the status of English as a world language has more to do with historical factors, mainly having been ‘in the right place at the right time’, than any inherent linguistic qualities of the language.

  3. Tariq says:

    Thx for the answers! It also helps the people in the to world communicate with each other!

  4. Belkis Blanco says:

    Great article. I think that the expansion of English as a dominant language is related to how accessible it is. For example, in my country Venezuela, lots of persons who have no trainning in the language are capale of recognizing words and structures. I think that’s due to the fact that English games, video games mainly, and movies make it closer. I don’t think English is easy, it’s just familiar.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Thanks for your comment Belkis! Yes, you’re right, the international exposure of English through movies and music has certainly helped it to become familiar to people in a wide range of different countries around the world.

  5. Stefan says:

    Hello Mr. Raine,

    first I want to thank you for this great explanation. I am looking for a text about Hispanic groups in the USA. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks in advance

    • Paul Raine says:

      Dear Stefan,

      Thanks for your message! I’m glad the article was useful for you. I’m afraid the topic you are interested in is not my area at all, so I unfortunately I can’t be of much help :-( Have you tried searching Wikipedia (which is always a good starting point for academic research) and Google Scholar?

      The very best of luck with your current endeavor,

      Regards

      Paul

  6. Cecelia says:

    Thanks very much for the article! It has helped answer a few questions for me. Very interesting re: the spread of the English language through countries colonised by Britain. So colonisation of other countries lead to spreading the language of the dominant country. So, this would be the same as the spread of the French language due to France having colonised countries also, would that be right?

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Cecelia,

      Glad the article was interesting to you! Yes, as you say, colonization was a major force in spreading languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

      Regards

      Paul

  7. JAMES EMERALD says:

    Thank you Mr.Paul for your great insights. Very usefull for our research works

  8. Lindsay says:

    There are now more Non-Native English speakers in the world than there are Native and this presents are unique evolution opportunity for the English language, as it morphs, twists and turns and gradually outgrows its original version and becomes a sort of hybrid. English is an easy language to begin learning. there is no doubt about that. The difficulties though arise higher up the learner ladder when you begin introducing phrasal verbs, passives, etc. Very well-written article Paul!

  9. Colin Killick says:

    You touched on the amount of internet material in English. However, I think that the dominance of the US (and thus the English language) in the development of computer and internet technology has been so significant in the promotion of English as to almost warrant a heading of its own. Had the Chinese kicked off computer technology, their language may well have challenged English for global linguistic dominance.

    On another point, I agree there is nothing inherently logical about English language structure. However, it does have a some advantages over many other languages:
    * it often uses short, easy to remember words (there’s a reason for this which I won’t bore you with);
    * it has got rid of much of its grammatical case structure (having lived in Russia for a couple of years I can tell you this is a nightmare – in English a dog is a dog – in Russian the ending of sabaka is constantly changing depending on grammatical context). English has also simplified verb conjugation and got rid of the ridiculous notion of noun gender.
    * at its most basic level it is simple to use. If you can string together a few words in ‘subject-verb-object’ order you can easily make yourself understood and are ready to go.

  10. Farhan yusuf says:

    Thank you for the explanation of English language. I have a question and my question is why the people who are not natives want to learn English? And if they learnt what can English changes theis lives.

  11. immaculate says:

    due to the above article i read, i wish to know if colonialism can be seen as a factor responsible for the rise of english as world language?

  12. Hong Ju Yoon says:

    Thank you for all the information!

  13. Abdolreza says:

    Hi
    If Hitler had succeeded in defeating the Allied Forces, it would have been quite likely that German had gained the present status of English, as the international language or the global lingua franca. In that case we would talk about German rather than English!
    Collapsing the major European powers during WW2 (German, Britain, France, Russia…) and fleeing great minds to US seeking refuge there to continue their scientific and intellectual life there, in my opinion, were major factors which helped US emerge as the new dominant power in a global scale. These changes paved the way for English, as well, to have a new life, seizing the position of international language from French and in the course of time (as was mentioned earlier on this page) cultural, scientific and industrial hegemony of US helped English to gain the present status.

  14. murali says:

    i have learnt much about english . n how it is useful to all us.

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