With so many languages bouncing around the globe, you would be forgiven for thinking English is just one of many. The following 10 entries look at how a once small language spoken by an island people is now used as a global lingua franca. If Latin had the Roman Empire, then English has the world.
10. English is the Most Commonly Used Language in the Sciences
SCOPUS, the world’s largest database for peer-reviewed journals, contains 21, 000 articles from 239 countries. A 2012 study found that 80 percent were written entirely in English. That’s not all. For an article to gain entry to SCOPUS, a journal must include an English abstract – even if it is written in another language. This trend in the sciences shows no sign of stopping and in some cases, has even increased.
Most scientists know that research written in a foreign language will likely reach a limited audience. If research is to have a global impact, then it needs to be published in English. This means researchers need to have a level of proficiency which allows them to attend conferences, read research papers and hold discussions, all in English.
A monolingual English approach to science has its drawbacks. A BBC article concerning the stories of the indigenous tribes of Indonesia noted that as indigenous languages decline, it becomes increasingly difficult for scientists to access knowledge that could potentially be lost forever.
9. English in the Publishing World
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), an organization which provides statistics concerning global book publishing, 21.84% of all books published in the world are written in English. This figure is dwarfed compared to the number of periodicals released in English, which makes up a staggering 62.55% of all periodicals published. This seems impressive considering that English only takes second place for largest literate population in the world. The title is actually held by Mandarin Chinese, which boasts a literate population of 794,947,565 people, or 14.68% of the world. In comparison, English only has 572,977,034, representing a mere 10.58% of the world’s literate population.
It seems strange then, that only 4.85% of the world’s information resources are produced in Mandarin. In comparison, English sits comfortably producing 44.29% of global information. The nearest contender is German at 7.60%. The perception of English as a universal language alongside special programs which encourage English proficiency are most likely the reason English stays up on top.
8. English on the Internet
Is English’s dominance on the web coming to an end? It is safe to say that English was probably the first language used online. By the mid-1990s, 80% of the internet’s content was written in English. This is no longer the case, where competition with Chinese, French, German and Spanish has caused English’s presence on the net to shrink to around 30%. Chinese in particular, has expanded to fill this gap, growing by 1277.4% between 2000 and 2010. To keep this in perspective, out of around the 6,000 languages in use, the top ten most commonly used languages on the internet (English, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, German, French, and Malaysian) make up 82% of all content.
English remains dominant with around 800 million users surfing the net, but Chinese stays close with 649 million and Spanish follows with 222 million users. Does it matter which language you speak online? It does when it comes to language inequality. There are huge information vacuums where other languages are left in the dark in favour of more popular ones. For example, Google searches in English return between four to five time more results than in Arabic. Not all languages are considered equal.
7. English is Not the Official Language of the United States
Officially speaking, the United States federal government has no official language. A common misconception even President Donald Trump once declared “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” While it is true that English has kept a dominant position, America has enjoyed a long tradition of language diversity. In 1664, eighteen different languages were recorded on Manhattan Island.
Historically, language laws were dismissed as a danger to the individual liberties of US citizens. An English-speaking population was judged less important to American identity than the principles of liberty on which America was founded upon. English was neither a unifying force nor a cause for separation, it was simply a tool. When attempts were made to force English on the population, they served only to damage constitutional rights and cause conflict between ethnic groups.
6. The Official Language of the Aviation Industry
In 1962, the International Civil Organization (ICAO) established that it was essential for air traffic control to provide their services in English. The Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Proficiency Requirements states that the English language must be available, on request from any air station, at all stations on the ground serving designated airports and routes used by international air services.
One the reasons for the push towards English was the claim that a lack of language proficiency by non-native English speaking pilots contributed to a number of fatal accidents. For example, the 1977 Tenerife runway collision, the Avianca crash near JFK and the 1995 American Airlines crash in Colombia were all alleged to be the result of communication errors.
5. The Official Working Language of ASEAN
English is now used to break down barriers between nations for the sake of international diplomacy. It is not uncommon for delegates to use English to discuss politics without the need for interpreters. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established on the 8th of August, 1976 and involves ten member states. ASEAN looks to encourage regional peace and stability throughout Southeast Asia. In 2009, Article 34 was added to the ASEAN Charter, which states ‘The working language of ASEAN shall be English.’ This allows ASEAN to effectively cut costs unlike organisations such as the EU which uses a translation service to promote equality among member countries.
Unfortunately, not all change is good news. Local languages are being replaced in schools with curriculums choosing not to teach other ASEAN state languages in favor of English. This is a common complaint concerning English’s global spread, as we’ll see below.
4. The Death of Other Languages
It has been predicted that by 2100, 90% of the world’s languages will officially be lost to us. English gets a lot of the blame as a global language that pushes minority languages into extinction. For the young people of the world, English is being chosen over local languages that cannot provide the same benefits for mass communication.
Ethnologue, a US organization, has put together a global database of languages with 473 considered endangered. Whether it is a lack of interest or just progress, as more and more people abandon other languages in favor of English, the future will be much less linguistically diverse.
3. English in Politics
You switch on the television and a news station is reporting more political unrest in some far-off land. Ever wondered why the protestors write their signs in English? They may be half way across the world, but they how to get their message out to a wider audience.
Whereas local and national media services struggle to reach figures in the millions, global media networks can hit much greater numbers. The BBC Global News service has reported an audience of a quarter of a billion. More often than not, these outlets provide their information in English, protestors know this and use English in the hope that their voices will be heard.
2. Japan Considers English an Official Language
Japan has had a difficult relationship with the English language over the years. Several prominent figures in Japan’s history have suggested English should become the official language of the country. The first was Mori Arinori in 1872, the first Japanese ambassador for the USA, who wanted to switch to English for the sake of international trade.
In 1946, the author Shiga Naoya suggested adopting French instead, which inspired Kindaichi Haruhiko to write the best seller “Nihongo” in defense of the Japanese language. This didn’t stop socio-linguist Takao Suzuki from suggesting Englic in 1975, a version of English which ignores British and American culture. None of these proposals were successful, but they do show the wide-spread appeal of English as an international language.
1. More Non-Native Speakers than Native Speakers
It may come as a surprise that there are now far more non-native speakers of English than there are native speakers. With 750 million using English as a foreign language compared to 375 million native speakers, non-native speakers are more likely to hold a conversation in English than any other language. These numbers are growing, asking serious questions about the future of the English language in an increasingly globalized world.
Does English belong to native speakers? Vast bodies of research are devoted to answering just this question. Some argue that the term “non-native English speaker” is out dated, suggesting that in some sense non-native speakers are inferior to natives. They contend that English is now a language used for both international and intercultural communication and therefore belongs to no one.
There’s now even calls for non-native versions of English like Singlish (Singapore-English) and Chinglish (Chinese English) to be considered valid forms of the language in the same way as American or British English. That could mean textbooks and school classrooms teaching forms of English most natives have never heard of before. It seems the future of English could take us in a very different direction.