Our theme for February is more of a challenge to our writers: write a piece without using first person pronouns (I, me, we, etc.)

Photo: Countries in red use the English-language Wikipedia more than any other language

There was no declaration. There was no coup. The cumbersome, hodgepodge Anglo-Saxon dialect installed itself as king unhurriedly, emphatically, and, if recent trends continue, irreversibly. Today, English is not the most-spoken language in the world, but it is the most-studied, most-published, most-tweeted, and, probably, the most influential.

Here’s why:

1. English rules the world… because England used to rule the world

English’s prominence undeniably has roots in British colonialism (“There are Only 22 Countries in the World that the British Haven’t Invaded,” declares this Mental Floss article[1]). Dozens of countries speak English because of influence from a British elite, or because their inhabitants are the descendents of the British themselves.

English has about 360 million native speakers, coming in third place behind Spanish, with 405 million, and Mandarin Chinese, with a whopping 955 million native speakers.[2] Countries where English is officially spoken include the United States, Canada, India, and Nigeria—some of the most-populated countries in the world.

When you count people who speak English as a second or other language, however, the number of speakers jumps to somewhere between 840 million and 1.4 billion speakers. These native and primary speakers alone would make English a strong global language—but English’s actual reach far surpasses that.

2. English rules the world… because of technology and research

Many of the most prestigious and well-read scientific journals publish primarily in English. The website “Research Trends” found that 80 percent of peer-reviewed articles were published in English[3], despite many scientists not speaking English as their first language. In nearly all Western European countries, the study found, researches were more likely to publish in English than in their native langage.[4]

With the vast majority of articles being published in English, new articles are more likely to cite or challenge English articles, shifting the language of scientific conversation to English. In the same way that Latin used to be a common language between educated people, English is becoming a way for Italian and Brazilian and Egyptian scientists to converse.

This is also reflected in technology, much of which is either developed by, or marketed to, an English-speaking audience. For example, English tech words, especially brand names, constantly leak into Spanish, adopting Spanish spelling and grammar formations in the process. One will guglear (google) questions, send tuits on Twitter, or spend time whatsappeando (using a popular messaging app).

Some of the best software and tools—for anything from photoshop to accounting—are published only in English, nearly requiring experts in these fields to learn English to keep up with advances in their fields.

3. English rules the world… because of entertainment

The United States spends more money on producing entertainment than any other country. Hollywood films are watched from North Dakota to North Korea and Top 40 music is played from Honduras to Hungary. Increasingly, peoples’ favorite actors, singers, and comedians speak English.

It’s hard to appreciate exactly how much the United States leads in entertainment. For comparison, the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time is No Se Aceptan Devoluciones, released in the U.S. as Instructions not Included. The slapstick family comedy made $99 million worldwide, a number that smashed previous Spanish-language records, but pales in comparison to the all-time number one Avatar, which took in $2.78 billion. Every single one of the 100 highest-grossing films of all time are in English.[5] 

4. English rules the world… because of the internet

According to the best estimations, there are 873 million English-speaking internet users, compared with 704 million Chinese-speaking internet users (Mandarin and various dialects), and 257 million Spanish internet users[6].

This means that hundreds of millions of users are using the internet in English, even though that is not their first language. One explanation is that English by far dominates the web in content.

There are five million articles and counting on the English version of Wikipedia. Mandarin, which has three times as many native speakers, has only 850,000. Arabic has nearly the same number of native speakers as English, but has barely more than 400,000 articles.

As another example, Facebook has over 1.2 billion active users, and is one of the world’s most influential sites in terms of connecting people. Though over 75 percent of their users are outside of the United States, 52 percent of Facebook accounts are in English[7], four times as many as Spanish, the next-most-common language.

There are a lot of reasons for this—internet usage has a lot to do with wealth, and native English speakers, based on their countries of origin, are disproportionately wealthy. Another reason is access—Facebook users who speak a language that the site does not offer must choose to use the site in a second language (like English) or not to use it at all.

5. English rules the world… because it rules the world.

As many as 1.4 billion people speak some English, which makes it one of the closest things there is to a universal language. Because of its power and scope, millions of students and professionals study it. This, in turn, increases the total number of speakers, increasing the language’s usefulness, and, again, increasing the number of people interested in learning it.

Science magazine published a fascinating map that measures not a language’s scope, but its influence.[8] Looking at “three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations, and multilingual Wikipedia edits,” author Shahar Ronen and his co-authors found that, “In all three networks, English has the most transmissions to and from other languages and is the most central hub.”

This has real and permanent consequences. English’s hegemony is causing the rapid and irreversable death of less-spoken languages, and with the death of these langauges die rich histories and cultures.

English as a de facto language also privileges those who are born speaking English—particularly residents of the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. This puts up barriers for those who increasingly, to communicate on a global scale, must converse in a tongue that is not maternal—global wealth trends show that this disproportionately affects the poor.

English is a beautiful and intricate language—but it is not every language. The poetry of Pablo Neruda is more lyrical in his native Spanish, the Navajo language contains untranslatable culture, and scholars still read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek. Increasingly, centers of technology, art, entertainment, and internet content are finding rich homes away from the Western, English-speaking world. English may be king, but it need not be forever—and not all languages must be subject to it.

[1] http://mentalfloss.com/article/13019/there-are-only-22-countries-world-british-haven%E2%80%99t-invaded
[2] 2010 statistics, thanks Wikipedia
[3] http://www.researchtrends.com/issue6-july-2008/english-as-the-international-language-of-science/
[4] http://www.researchtrends.com/issue-31-november-2012/the-language-of-future-scientific-communication/
[5] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/records/All-Time-Worldwide-Box-Office
[6] http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm
[7] http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/facebooks-top-ten-languages-and-who-is-using-them/240343
[8] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/12/want-influence-world-map-reveals-best-languages-speak

Katerina Parsons

Katerina Parsons (’15) graduated with a double major in English writing and international development studies. She lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works as the Director of English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, an organization that fights for peace, security, and anti-corruption in Honduras.

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