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English is one of the major languages in the world. In Shakespeare’s time, though, only a few million people spoke English, and the language was not thought to be very important by the other nations of Europe, and was unknown to the rest of the world.

English has become a world language because of its establishment as a mother tongue outside England, in all the continents of the world. The exporting of English began in the seventeenth century, with the first settlements in North America.

Above all, it is the great growth of population in the United States, assisted by massive immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that has given the English language its present standing in the world.

People who speak English fall into one of three groups: those who have learned it as their native language in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; those who have learned it as a second language in a society that is mainly bilingual: in more than 70 countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, India, Singapore and Vanuatu; and those who are forced to use it for a practical purpose – administrative, professional or educational. One person in seven of the world’s entire population belongs to one of these three groups. Incredibly enough, 75% of the world’s mail and 60% of the world’s telephone calls are in English.

Although estimates vary greatly, some 1.5bn are thought to be competent communicators in English. That’s a quarter of the world’s population.

So, can English be a global language when three out of four people do not use it? Given the areas of world influence where it has become to have a pivotal role, the answer has to be yes. Evidence suggests that English is now the dominant tongue in international politics, banking, the press, news agencies, advertising, broadcasting, the recording industry, movies, travel, science and technology, knowledge management and communications. No other language has achieved such a widespread profile – or is likely to in the foreseeable future.

Other languages have an important international presence, of course. Both Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more mother-tongue speakers than English, according to a 1999 survey. Although there is uncertainty about statistics, Spanish is growing faster than any other language, especially in the Americas.

The reason for the global status of English has nothing to do with its number of first-language speakers. Three times as many people speak it as a second or foreign language, and this ratio is increasing.

Old English, like modern German, French, Russian and Greek, had many inflection to show singular and plural, tense, etc., but over the centuries words have been simplified. Verbs now have very few inflections. Without inflections, the same word can operate as many different parts of speech. Many nouns and verbs have the same form, for example swim, drink, walk, kiss, look, process, smile, record.We can talk about waterto drink and to waterthe flowers; timeto go and to timea race; a paperto read and to papera bedroom. Adjectives can be used as verbs. We warmour hands in front of a fire; if our clothes are dirtied,they need to be cleanedand dried. Prepositions too are flexible. A sixty-year old man is nearingretirement; we can talk about a round of golf, cards,or drinks.This involves the free admission of words from other languages and the easy creation of compounds and derivatives. Most world languages have contributed some words to English at some time, and the process is now being reversed. Purists of the French, Russian, and Japanese languages are resisting the arrival of English in their vocabulary.

Once a language is so widely spoken, it ceases to have a single centre of influence. Changes taking place in the way English is used in such places as South Africa, India, China and Singapore are outside anyone’s control. Not even a World English Academy could affect them.

Standard English is the chief force, existing as an international reality in print, and available as a tool for national and international communication. Its position is being reinforced by new technologies. Satellite television is beaming standard English down into previously unreachable parts of the world, thereby fostering greater levels of mutual intelligibility. And the Internet currently has a predominantly (80%) English voice – though this figure is falling as other languages come online.

But nothing is entirely predictable in the world of language. At the start of the millennium, it would have been hard to believe that few would know Latin 1,000 years later. It takes only a shift in the balance of economic or political power for another language, to move centre stage.

Who speaks English …

… as a first language (m) … as a second language (m)

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