Let’s face it: almost everyone’s confronted a little anxiety about traveling to a new country where they don’t speak the language. But if you’re a native English speaker and you’ve ever vocalized that anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ve also heard someone respond reassuringly, “Oh, don’t worry — they all speak English there anyways.” Truth be told, speaking English gives you an advantage in a lot of parts of the world where you otherwise might not be able to get by. What makes English such a universal language?
Defining A Universal Language
When linguists and language enthusiasts try to identify an “international,” “world” or “universal” language, they’re not trying to ascribe values to human languages, ranking them as “better” or “worse” than any other. They’re considering how widely these languages are used in various areas of people’s lives — from the tongues they speak at home, to the language that’s spoken to them in schools and in the news, to what they see and hear in works of pop culture and all the other places language pops up in their everyday experiences.
There is little doubt that English has become that very universal language for much of the world. There are roughly 360 million people who speak the language natively, with an estimated 1.5 billion people in total who speak it around the world (that’s roughly 20 percent of the world’s population). Some sources estimate that in at least 45 countries, more than half of the people speak English to some extent. There are also at least 25 recognized forms of pidgin English thought to exist today.
It holds de jure official language status — meaning the law explicitly recognizes it — in about 60 countries, including Barbados, Ireland, Kenya, Malawi, Jamaica, Singapore, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Canada and Papua New Guinea. It’s also one of the official languages of the United Nations and the European Union, and it’s the most studied language in the world — well ahead of French in second place.
So why is it that English has bubbled to the surface of the global linguistic pool? To understand the dominance of English on the world stage, we must look back generations ago to the rise, spread and supremacy of the British Empire. Over centuries of colonialism and commonwealth building, the Brits extended the reach of their dominion to corners of the globe near and far, and they brought their language with them, planting its roots wherever they went. Thus, the language was transported from England to India, South Africa, Australia, the United States and on and on.
Speaking of the United States, you can’t ignore the immense impact of the world’s 20th-century superpower on the expansion of English. Since the end of World War II especially, Americans have projected their cultural, political, economic and military power on the world stage, and by doing so, they helped cement the influence of English. Media from Hollywood, foreign wars, tourism, trade and manufacturing, and the globalization of booming American business have all contributed to the positioning of English as a universal language. Today, English is a majority language of the United States, though not an official one (the United States doesn’t have an official language).
Another reason that English has seen a swell in popularity over the past hundred-plus years is its flexibility — the language is full of loan words and is constantly absorbing new ones as it permeates cultural communities across the world. English speakers gradually adopted words like burrito (from Mexican Spanish), bayou (from the Choctaw Native Americans) and boutique (from French) to describe concepts they never had or needed words for until they came in contact with (or clashed with) another culture. The spongy nature of English makes it adaptable to new worldwide or localized trends that can be linguistically reflected in real time.
English also donates its own words to languages eager to take on particular and peculiar linguistic articles from English that they don’t already have a way to express. In Japanese, French fries are called furaido potato, and ice cream is aisukurīmu. Germans call birth control pills antibabypillen.
All of this English expansion isn’t without significant global pushback, however. There have been concerted efforts by governments and organizations around the world to stop the spread and encroachment of English into languages that have for ages resisted outside influence. The Academie française in France, for example, has created an online campaign to “rehabilitate” French from invading English words like email, le week-end or le best of that have seeped into the common lexicon.
Other Options For A Universal Language
There are other languages scattered around the world that are top contenders for the world’s universal language. By sheer numbers alone, Chinese has by far the most momentum behind it: there are roughly 1.2 billion people who speak the language, making it the world’s most-spoken tongue. But if you’re a Chinese speaker traveling to some foreign part of the globe, you might be less likely to hear your friend say to you, “Oh, don’t worry, they all speak Chinese there.” Why is that?
Well, part of it has to do with the fact that China’s imperial legacy was nowhere as diasporic or far-reaching as the British Empire was; though Chinese people and their language have existed for millennia, they didn’t sail all across the seven seas, establishing empires around the world. And until recently, tourism hasn’t been huge in China, meaning that historically smaller fractions of the nation’s population were leaving the country or the continent and bringing their language with them.
Another reason is that Chinese uses a character-based script that makes it notoriously difficult to learn for people whose native language uses an alphabet in which letters represent sounds — that’s every speaker of English, German, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Cherokee and many more. Picking up English isn’t exactly a walk in the park — it’s got weird and irregular spelling patterns and pronunciations and some funky grammar rules — but compared to Chinese, it’s much less of a challenge.
Throughout time, there have been several languages that might have been considered an international or universal language, and not without reason. One of them was French, which became the language of the nobility in Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and centuries later became the language of diplomacy and communication around the European continent, as well as in France’s territorial holdings in northern Africa and parts of the Middle East, carrying a linguistic prestige.
One can’t undervalue the influence of languages like German or Russian, either, which had great deals of speakers in the last 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and were regarded as somewhat universal means of communication in their regions of influence — Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. Today, German is a major language of the European Union. And Spanish, too, has a wide-reaching influence, found nearly everywhere in Central America and major chunks of South America.
But today, there’s little doubt that these languages pale in comparison to English in terms of worldwide ubiquity and usage. It’s hard to predict when or if another language will match it in popularity, but overall, it’s clear that English as a global force is going to be around for a while.