There’s a very good chance, if you’re reading this, that English is not your first language. Non-native speakers currently outnumber native speakers by an estimated four to one. At the same time, 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – speak English either fluently or to a useful level of competency.* There have been many lingua francas throughout history, and English is far from alone in the 21st century in having an international reach – Arabic is spoken across the Middle East and North Africa, French is an official language in over 30 countries around the world and Portuguese in 11, and Spanish is a powerful lenguaje global in its own right, more so by the day – but none has ever had the dominance that English does. Once the obscure West Germanic language of a damp little island kingdom, it is now an official language in almost 60 countries, the international language of aviation and seafaring, the pre-eminent language of scientific research, the most common language online and the major working language of diplomacy and international relations. What does its phenomenal success mean for the 75% of the world’s population that do not currently speak it, what does it mean for those who only speak it, what does it mean for other languages and what does it mean for English itself?
For non-speakers it increasingly means being at an economic disadvantage in a globalised world. The enormous demand for English is driven primarily, at an individual level, by the desire to improve one’s employment opportunities. On a national level it is gives a country a competitive edge in the international marketplace and helps drive growth and development. At the same time, however, while native speakers have the distinct advantage of not needing to learn the major world language, they run the risk of disadvantaging themselves if it’s the only language they know; those who speak English as well as their mother tongue have access both to their own culture and society and to the global opportunities available through English, whereas monolingual English speakers are, as it were, confined to the limits of their own tongue. It is always going to be better to speak two or more languages rather than just one, even when that one is English.
As for its effect on other languages, it might seem that the very most that is happening is an ever growing number of loanwords entering their lexicons, but in fact the dominance of English is making it all the harder for minority and endangered languages to remain fully functional, as many countries that are home to a variety of indigenous tongues, especially in Africa and Asia, increasingly use English as an official medium for education, government, public broadcasting, research and trade.
English can no longer be said to belong to any one country or people, not when so much of what is spoken around the world is between non-natives: think French and Chinese businessmen in a meeting, for example, or Japanese and Brazilian scientists at a conference; think Moroccan and Turkish ambassadors at the UN. As a lingua franca English is, if anything, likely to be moulded in future not only by those for whom it is their mother tongue but also by those for whom it comes second. How it will look a century from now is impossible to say, but the language today and any changes that may come belong to everyone.
* The English Effect, British Council