English is truly global. With well over a billion speakers, it’s the most-used language in the world. This is impressive enough, but unlike its nearest competitors (Mandarin Chinese and Hindi), English also plays a special role across the world as a lingua franca—a bridge language between people who don’t share a common native tongue. In fact, for most of its speakers, English is a secondary language.
It’s a remarkable position for a language that, until relatively recently, was generally insignificant. Just four centuries ago, English was almost entirely confined to the British Isles. Its isolation was evocatively conveyed in Shakespeare’s play Richard II, where the Duke of Norfolk—having been exiled from England—laments that he will have to forsake his native tongue: “The language I have learn’d these forty years, / My native English, now I must forego, / And now my tongue’s use is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or a harp.”
How strange these words seem today! English speakers are now used to the idea that their language is spoken across the world. Yet even in the last century this seemed unlikely. As linguist David Crystal notes, “in 1950, any notion of English as a true world language was but a dim, shadowy, theoretical possibility. . . . [Now] World English exists as a political and cultural reality.”
Fellow linguist Nicholas Ostler writes more broadly: “Recent history—a mere four centuries—has seen it expand from confinement in some out-of-the-way off-continent European islands to become the world’s preferred medium for business, science, and, to some extent, even entertainment.”
Does it matter? One language is like another: a package of grammatical rules, exceptions and puzzling idiosyncrasies. In a globalized world, an international lingua franca is arguably inevitable; if not English, then it would be another. And yet there’s much more to it than that. The rise of English has been powered by numerous historical forces and human interests. Crystal notes that “without a strong power-base, of whatever kind, no language can make progress as an international medium of communication. Language has no independent existence.” It’s the product of human activity.
Historian Daniel Immerwahr points out that language shapes the way we think and how we construct our societies, and it even affects whether we’re comfortable with some ideas versus others: “That a single language has become the dominant tongue on the planet, spoken to a degree by nearly all educated and powerful people, is thus an occurrence of profound consequence.”
“Languages are standards, just like stop signs and screw threads, but they run much deeper. Languages shape thought, making some ideas more readily thinkable and others less so.”
There are reasons that English—and not French or Latin or Persian—is preeminent today, and they reveal something about us as humans. Its position in the world is sometimes celebrated, sometimes resented; and this mixed picture raises critical questions. Is the dominance of a single language a good thing? Is there value when multiple languages coexist? Can native English speakers afford to rely on a single language (as many do)? What might the future hold for English and the world of language as a whole?
English is not the first universal language. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel describes an early lingua franca. Babel ended in linguistic division, but since then other lingua francas have come and gone: Aramaic in ancient Babylon, Persian and Latin across Central Asia and Europe respectively, and French among European elites, to name but a few. English, however, is the first to be truly world-spanning.
How did English come to be so prevalent? In some respects, it was a by-product of larger processes. But it has also been used as a tool, either of power or as a means of personal advancement. The historical record demonstrates that its ascent was often intentional, with self-interest as a consistent and often concerning feature.
The idea of English as a lingua franca is surprisingly old. In 1780, future US president John Adams wrote that “English is destined to be in the next and succeeding Centuries, more generally the Language of the World, than Latin was in the last, or French is in the present Age.” About a decade later, lexicographer Noah Webster wrote that within 150 years, “North America will be peopled with a hundred millions of men, all speaking the same language.”
These prognostications are remarkably prescient, but even in Adams’s day the idea wasn’t new. Decades earlier, English had already begun to spread in conjunction with England’s imperial ambitions. As Britain established colonies in place of trading posts, a desire for governance through a central language—English being for them the obvious choice—became apparent.
At times, colonizers replaced governance by persuasion with more aggressive measures. In Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, for instance, they forcibly replaced the language of indigenous societies with English, imposing monolingualism by legislation. Similarly, the Atlantic slave trade ruptured and transplanted families and communities, forcing them to learn the language of their masters. Language was a tool of power.
In India, it was missionaries who sparked English’s rise. Churchmen of various faiths established English-language schools from the 18th century onward—ostensibly to proselytize and educate, yet powered by an unabashed sense of racial and cultural superiority. Ostler cites many examples, including one from an 1801 manuscript by clergyman D. MacKinnon: “The dark race appeared and do appear to me, buried in darkness. . . . The natives of India cannot be illuminated by their own languages.” (It should be noted that later in the 19th century, the newly established British and Foreign Bible Society did begin publishing Bible translations in the languages of India.)
English-language schools occupied a similar role in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Penang. English was a path toward sharing in the self-avowed superiority of English-speaking peoples. It quickly became associated with power, education and ambition—a path to status and prosperity.
English’s appeal in the context of individual ambition pops up frequently across history. Northrup notes several examples: As early as the Middle Ages, he writes, “self-interest led Irish involved in commercial and other contacts with the English to learn some of their language.” He likewise cites a 1920s report about British colonies in East Africa, which concluded that indigenous peoples were “‘eager to learn an European language,’ because they believed that English would open doors for advancement. . . .’” Speaking in context of Liberia in the late 19th century, he quotes Afro-Caribbean educator Edward Wilmot Blyden: “Next to the Christian religion, the most important element of strength and prosperity in Liberia is her possession of the English language.”
In the decades following World War II, the power and obvious wealth of the United States offered strong motives for learning English. International students attended American universities to enhance their prospects, while American films, music and corporate culture—from McDonald’s to Silicon Valley—advertised a glossy, idealized life. America’s cultural cachet is hard to measure, but over much of the 20th century its strength was undeniable. International promotion of American ideals was a deliberate aim of US foreign policy, and an easy task since English had already been established as the language of the educated elite—a connection strengthened by “the American dream” of individualistic success. Even now, though America’s star has largely lost its shine internationally, the link between personal advancement and the English language remains strong.
“English is associated with the quest to get rich, the deliberate acquisition of wealth, often by quite unprecedented and imaginative schemes.”
Earnings statistics support this perception. A British Council survey notes that wages in India are on average 34 percent higher for fluent English-speakers. Even seemingly pragmatic reasons for studying English are nevertheless aspirational. Cultural historian Edward Said pointed to students in the Middle East who simply “proposed to end up working for airlines, or banks, in which English was the worldwide lingua franca.”
For others, English is much more than simply a desirable skill, and they will go to great lengths to acquire it. In South Korea, for example, some parents send their children, usually under the age of 5, for surgery to cut the thin band of tissue under the tongue. Known as a lingual frenectomy, the procedure is thought to make it easier to pronounce the difficult l and r sounds.
Bridge or Barrier?
The advent of the Internet in the late 20th century seemed set to confirm the English language’s total victory. Its global ambition was implicit in its name—the World Wide Web—but it was constructed to specifically suit the English language. At the time it didn’t seem like a contradiction. The most popular programming languages—Python, C++, Java—are all derived from English, and the encoding scheme that in the Internet’s early days translated zeroes and ones into characters—ASCII—had no provision for many letters not found in the English alphabet.
Today English is clearly the dominant language online. A 2023 report says that over 57 percent of website home pages are in English, with the rest spread thinly across dozens of languages (Russian is second on the list at only 5.2 percent).
Yet the situation is subtly changing. Statistics suggest that, while English remains preeminent, other languages’ presence is growing quickly. The Russian- and Chinese-language Internet has proven resistant to external pressures—suggesting that other languages are prepared to hold their ground. In 2008, the more multilingual-friendly UTF-8 superseded ASCII.
It’s part of a longstanding trend of resistance against English: The Alliance Française was established in 1883 as a means of “defending” the French language—implicitly against English. In India, a key aspect of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s protest against British rule revolved around its imposition of English. Today only 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s population speak English, despite being under US sovereignty for over a century, and a large majority object to making it an official language. An increase in nationalism tied to linguistic heritage has seen the revival of dying languages such as Cornish, Hebrew and Catalan. And devolved UK governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have reintroduced local languages to public signage.
English’s place as a global language is thus not as secure as it may seem. Most of its speakers use it only as a second or even a third language, while many others around the world have no room for English in their life; even with a billion English speakers, simple arithmetic tells us that 7 billion of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants don’t speak it at all. A multilingual world therefore seems here to stay, and that has implications for all of us.
Tongue Twisting and the Need for Neutral
The notion of a borderless, monolingual world is appealing and has even been put into practice in a limited way: Esperanto is an artificial language created by Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof as a means toward world peace. (For that effort, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910.)
“For a language to be universal, it is not enough to call it that.”
There’s logic behind the idea. History has shown again and again that linguistic difference is a natural source of division. In World War II, for example, the United States sent a surrender ultimatum to Japan, to which the Japanese premier responded using the word 黙殺, or mokusatsu. It means “silence,” or “withholding comment”—an indication that they were considering how to respond. But it can also be translated as “not worthy of comment.” Regrettably, Allied forces angrily fixed on the latter translation and, ten days later, obliterated Hiroshima with an atomic bomb.
In an example from the height of the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech including the phrase мы тебя похороним! (my tebya pokhoronim!), a Russian idiom generally meaning “we will outlast you.” He clarified later that he’d meant it in terms of historical development: communism would outlive capitalism. Sadly, the idiom was translated and published widely in Western headlines as “we will bury you” (a technically correct but ultimately mistaken translation). It greatly heightened an already dangerous geopolitical situation.
These famous mistranslations, performed by qualified experts, are merely a couple of examples among many. Emotion and bias can skew translation, especially in high-pressure situations. That’s to say nothing of simple human error, to which we’re all susceptible.
It seems obvious, then, that reducing linguistic divides would improve matters, but in fact the dominance of English has exacerbated the situation, causing even further division—a problem Zamenhof had anticipated. He proposed that Esperanto, being politically neutral, solved the problems inherent in adopting an existing language with all its baggage.
He was correct, as appears evident today. English’s historical connection with empire and cultural imperialism is not easily forgotten, provoking much of the resistance we’ve already noted. Also, its very utility as a tool of individual progress leads to inequality. As Ostler notes, “global languages divide the societies that make use of them. Inevitably, some end up mastering them, and others do not—and this often makes a decisive difference to life chances. A sense of injustice can easily be associated with a language.”
An unsympathetic responder might counter, “Well, why doesn’t everyone learn English, then?” without recognizing the hundreds or even thousands of hours required to learn a language—hours that the native English speaker can use to advantage in attaining other marketable skills. A pervasive lack of sympathy for the non-native English speaker has worsened inequalities for decades. Those who speak English are privileged. “The ‘English-speaking elite’” Ostler says, “is a fact of life in every continent except North America—and typically, in the present ‘globalized’ age, its members get to make the decisions and reap whatever surpluses are available.”
Language Is Meant to Connect
English’s dominance exacerbates division in a world already replete with it. But what can be done? Some pin hopes on digital translation tools, but these don’t address another, more pervasive source of division best seen in the curious complacency native English speakers hold toward other languages.
For some time now, language learning in US and UK schools has been in decline, with many seeing language-learning as a waste of time. Crystal reminds us of a stereotype that’s “too near the reality to be comfortable”—that of “the archetypal British or American tourist who travels the world assuming that everyone speaks English, and that it is somehow the fault of the local people if they do not.” It affects even those in power; the last US president fluent in another language died in 1945.
Some contend that they are “no good” with languages, ignoring the fact that toddlers have a decent grasp of even the most difficult tongues. What’s required is effort, perhaps even selfless effort. Linguistic complacency is self-interested—part of a wider problem that includes cultural isolation and lack of understanding between societies. Language reflects our culture and worldview. Likewise, the language we speak shapes the way we think. It follows, then, that if we know another’s language, we can understand them better. What does it mean if we wilfully refuse this connection with other peoples?
“The bilingual experience can train the mind in the habit of perspective-taking, which enhances empathy.”
Linguistic divides are a barrier to empathy and a common feature of conflict, whether interpersonal or international. And it goes much further than simple (albeit far-reaching) wartime translation misunderstandings. It’s easier to dehumanize others if you don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s much harder to be empathetic, generous and understanding toward them if you can’t comprehend their words.
Language is a window to other minds, perspectives and cultures. Gathering information is a time-tested means of coming to a sensible conclusion; refusing to understand another’s language is a wilful rejection of useful intel. That’s to say nothing of the benefits to brain health and mental acuity produced by learning another skill. In a world where peaceful relationships at any level are at a premium, learning another language would seem an invaluable and even essential personal goal.
Overcoming the Language Barrier
What we are left with is a complex situation. The benefits of English as a world language are obvious to those who speak it. The downsides are as apparent, if not as widely acknowledged. Instead of advancing peace, the dominance of English has increased inequality, encouraged self-interest, and promoted division. English is not the problem; any other language, under similar circumstances, would have had a comparable outcome. More important are the human motives underpinning a language’s ascent.
Self-interest, whether in terms of personal ambition or imposition of power, has been central to the story of English, and these motivations have proven dangerous since the dawn of humanity. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel spotlights human self-interest and where it leads; the New Testament letter by the apostle James adds that where such selfish ambition exists, there is disorder, confusion and “every kind of evil.” This problem isn’t limited to language, of course; it runs through arguably every major system in our world and seems permanently entrenched.
English dominance is the result of a multitude of accumulated self-interested decisions, a malformed and stained tapestry that begs to be picked apart to start again. It’s a tangled problem with no intuitive solution.
The immediate future promises more of the same. People seem to find empathizing with each other difficult, and linguistic barriers are a critical part of that. Idealistic projects such as Esperanto—a baggage-free pure world language—make some sense. This kind of dramatic, widespread transformation is what’s needed to resolve today’s issues.
Again, the Bible suggests something similar. Besides naming the Tower of Babel as the place where linguistic division was born, it describes the solution to the difficulties introduced there: a “pure language” to promote unity among peoples—part of a wider vision of the future in which humanly devised problems will be resolved. It describes a divine power base that will give the language legitimacy and utility amidst a sweeping alteration in the way people relate.
Certainly, a language based on empathy and concern rather than self-interest and profit would be a bold improvement on what we have now.