Centuries ago, the expansion of now fallen empires carried many European languages far overseas, and they ended up significantly out of place. For example, Spanish even found its way to the Pacific Ocean on both American continents, engulfing native tongues like Nahuatl, Zapotec, and Mixtec as speakers had to adopt the new language in order to get by in society. Thankfully, many native languages are survived by thousands of speakers today, however, the dominance of European tongues has not dwindled.For better or worse, the spread of English is a fascinating thing, not least because it seems to be accelerating.Learn more in this post.
The current reach of the English language is the closest we’ve ever come to a planet-wide lingua franca. Information blog Visual Capitalist estimates that there are 1.132bn English speakers in the world, compared to 1.116bn people who speak Mandarin Chinese, 615m Hindu speakers, and 534m people who claim Spanish as at least one of their spoken languages. With the exception of Arabic at number six, many of the most common languages worldwide originate from the Indo-European branch.
For better or worse, the spread of English is a fascinating thing, not least because it seems to be accelerating. Writers try to appeal to the Anglosphere as a default position, meaning that even stories set in far-away places tend to lack cultural or societal references that would alienate readers from the USA or UK, for example. There’s evidence that European languages like Italian are shifting towards English ways of writing and speaking, too.
The Internet has a huge part to play in this. The ubiquity of English language memes, blogs, slang, and pop-culture references online means that users from all countries are exposed to English on a daily basis. Offline, English is also a popular source of loan words. For example, the Finns borrowed ‘high-five’, while ‘okay’ is useful in both Japanese and Czech.
Around the World and Back
English is increasingly easy to learn. Perhaps not technically, but at least in terms of the number of relevant educational tools out there. The website Preply has helped more than 44,000 people learn English with a combination of human tuition and resources such as infographics. The service also allows learners to specify their needs when starting out, including business or conversational language only.
However, despite all the above, the belief that English will get you around the world and back without a single word said in another language is a flawed one. East of Germany’s borders, a traveler is unlikely to find an English speaker on the same longitude until they reach the USA on the other side of the world. The vast majority of the language’s non-native speakers live in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and the lonely outpost of Guyana in South America.
Unusually, two of the world’s largest trading economies, China and Russia, hardly bother with English at all. The recent growth of Mandarin means that there are plenty of opportunities for Chinese people to converse in their own language. Russia has much the same problem with language learning that the English do, namely, the formal education system doesn’t encourage the uptake of new tongues.
Overall, English is in the paradoxical position of being the world’s language without actually having much of a presence within individual countries. Still, it remains a common choice for two speakers of different languages to communicate with each other, and will likely continue to dominate much of the global media.