A woman holding different flags of countries that speak English. Text: Reasons for English - English as a lingua Franca by English with Stephen

Reasons for English: Why is English the world’s language?

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at how English became the world’s lingua franca, or the most dominant language.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English as effectively as possible in under 10 minutes.

Last week, in episode 43, we looked at the origins of the phrase ‘lingua franca’ and how it came to mean ‘a common language’. Today we are going to build on this idea of a global lingua franca. If you would like to listen to the previous episode, you can find it on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com or on your favourite podcast app.

One of the questions I often get from students, and from the people who follow my Facebook page, is this: ‘Why is English the lingua franca?’

It’s a very good question and leads to a lot of discussion in my classrooms. I think it is important that people know why they are studying English and not, say French, Chinese or Arabic. So that is what we are going to talk about today: how English became the lingua franca, or the common language, for pretty much the whole world.

Sometimes, some of my students suggest it is because English is relatively easy or functional. The rise of English has very little to do with this, as most students could probably agree. I mean, we have those frustrating phrasal verbs, dodgy prepositions, and the present perfect tense!

We’ll answer the question after this…

As I mentioned in my introduction, I get a lot of people asking me questions and leaving me messages on my Facebook page. If you would like to follow me there and leave me a message then just look for English with Stephen on Facebook. If that doesn’t work, go to my web page, EnglishwithStephen.com, and you will find a link to my Facebook page as well as all my other social media.

And now, back to how English became the dominant language.

For a long time, English was just a minor European language. Until the 1800s, an educated European would probably use Latin as a means of communication. For people who didn’t have a classical education, or lived in another part of the world, they would make do with some sort of improvised, or pidgin, language.

I’m not going to talk about how English was ‘invented’. I have covered that in an episode called ‘Where does English come from?’ Instead, let’s just assume that there is this English language spoken by the people of England. It started to spread outside the boundaries of England with trade and conquest. First of all, it was influential in places like Wales, Scotland and Ireland as the English slowly conquered those countries.

The first place that English spread to outside the British Isles was north America. Places such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, and what is today known as the United States were colonised by the English or the British and so the English language was exported. In the 1800s, English was then exported to the rest of the Empire in places such as Australia, India, Africa, and China.

While English had a large geographical reach, it was still not inevitable that it would become the lingua franca. During the 1800s, the educated elites of Europe and the Americas often learnt French as their second language. In other parts of the world, other languages were far more important, such as Arabic or Chinese.

However, the 20th century brought with it a number of unstoppable forces that all lead to English being the main second language.

First of all, we have the United States. The USA was one of the two superpowers after World War Two, not only militarily, but also in terms of economics and culture. While it is easy to see how important the USA was with its army and economy, it is perhaps also worth thinking about the effect of its culture. Blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, hip-hop were all born in the USA and were all in English. Hollywood movies were in English. The biggest and best universities moved towards the USA, as they attracted the brightest and the best from around the world.

All of these factors helped to sell English as a language around the world.

But it was just this. From the 1970s we get the advent of computers and the world of IT. Initially, all of this was in English. If you wanted to play a computer game in the 1980s, you had to understand English.

And there’s more. Globalisation in the late 20th century served to make the whole world smaller. Technology meant you could easily talk to people on the other side of the world, or watch their TV or listen to their music. And as we have seen, most of that was in English.

It is also at this time that China re-enters the global stage. For hundreds of years, China had either chosen to stay away from world matters or had been forced to. But in the late 1970s they started, slowly at first, but increasingly quickly as time passed, to develop their economy and international politics.

Because China had not been a world player for such a long time their language had not been studied by many. So when they decided to join the party, they had to learn English. And this gave another impetus to English becoming the world’s lingua franca.

Today, there are more Chinese students of English than there are people who learn English as a first language. A Brazilian is more likely to use English with another English learner than somebody from the UK or the USA.

But what is the future of English? Will it continue to dominate the world stage? Or will another language like Chinese rise up to take over? Perhaps technology will mean there is no longer a need for a lingua franca?

To be honest, I have no idea. If I had to bet I would say that English will remain in its position of power for a while before technology allows us to communicate quickly without needing to learn another language. Kind of like the babel fish from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy or the Universal Translator from Star Trek.

Do you agree? What do you think is the future of English? Please let me know on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, where you can find links and images related to some of the things I have been talking about today. Alternatively, leave a message on my Facebook page.

Next week, I am going to talk about the implications of English as a lingua franca for actually learning English. Being aware of the features of this new English and what you need to know about it could be very important for what students need to learn and what teachers need to teach. I hope you will join me for that next week.

That’s all from me today. Live long and prosper!

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