This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on how the USA guaranteed English would be the world’s language in the 20th century.
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Hello and welcome! My name’s Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, my podcast that tries to give you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.
Today, I am going to look once again at the history of the English language. In a previous episode, I talked about the British empire and how it helped to spread English around the world. However, I also mentioned that in a lot of places English was only spoken by the elites who had to interact with the limited representatives of the British state.
By the start of the 20th century, the British Empire was in decline. This decline would speed up with World War I and then World War II as it became obvious that Britain was no longer the strongest world power.
At this point, there was a possibility that English would stop its growth. It would still be an important language, but it would remain in the countries that had been populated by the British, for example, the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
At that time, French was probably the world’s second language. It was the language of diplomacy and philosophy. The educated elites all over the world learned French. It seemed that French was probably best placed to become the lingua franca if one was needed.
So what happened for English to take that undisputed role?
The United States happened, that’s what.
I’ll tell you why and how, after this.
Before we look at how the USA encouraged the world to speak English, I’d like to ask you to drop a rating on this podcast. I’d love a 5-star rating on the podcast app that you use to listen to this show. It really influences the podcast apps to recommend this podcast and so help spread the programme as far as possible.
Since the USA gained independence until World War I, there was a debate about how much the country should interact with the rest of the world. On the one hand, there was reluctance to get involved with all the wars that were taking place in Europe. But on the other hand, the USA had interests around the world and if it wanted to exploit these interests it would need to get involved.
In 1917, the USA joined World War I on the side of the Allies. From this moment on, the USA would become a big player in world affairs. Politically, this can be seen in the creation of The League of Nations, its activities in World War II, being a permanent member of the UN’s security council and its role in the Cold War. Having both the UK and the USA as two of the five members of the Security Council meant there were two countries using the same language.
But it wasn’t only the USA’s influence on politics that meant English would dominate. It was money!
It’s always money, isn’t it?
During the 20th century, the USA was far and away the most successful economy. Having the most successful economy led to a number of factors that made English attractive to other countries. It meant that the USA could afford to ‘persuade’ other countries to do what they wanted. It also meant that other countries would do things for the USA in the hope of receiving a reward.
But it wasn’t just countries that wanted to see some of the money that the USA had. Companies would try to imitate American products and advertising in an attempt to get rich. Individuals would also copy what was going on in the USA, or even try to live there and follow the American Dream.
The increase in wealth also meant that the USA was able to invest in its military. Once they had a military that was stronger than most other countries they felt in a position to be able to bully countries that could not be bought. But it wasn’t just this. If you were a country that wanted to be an ally with the USA, it was probably wise to train your soldiers to speak English. This would make it much easier to carry out military manoeuvres with the USA.
Political, military and economic strength are what is known as hard power. Hard power refers to thing things that are easy to see and identify as strengths. But there is also soft power, and here, again, the USA had benefits.
The 20th century saw the rise of blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. All of these were originally created in the USA. If you wanted to listen to Elvis Presley, BB King or Louis Armstrong well, you’d either need to understand English or you would start to understand it by listening to the songs. Yes, there were other countries that quickly adapted American music, but initially, these were other English-speaking countries like Britain, Ireland and Australia, which just reinforced the dominance of English.
Along with music comes Hollywood. American movies were supplied all over the world and they showed a USA with money and glamour. The suggestion being that if you wanted money and glamour, you’d need to speak English.
Another example of soft power is education. The USA spent a lot of money on research and development and very quickly had some of the best universities in the world, If you were an ambitious academic, the place to be was the USA. And, of course, when you get the best academics you very quickly get the best students. People from all over the world applied to American universities seeing them as a guaranteed way to get the best possible education.
All of this needed English.
As the 20th century continued, we start to see innovation taking place in the USA. And the biggest of all innovations was in the field of information technology. It is only relatively recently that computers have been available in languages other than English, or that kids can play computer games in their own languages. And if you wanted a job in IT, then English was the only game in town.
There are lots of other reasons for why the USA was the dominant power of the 20th century, making it The American Century for a lot of historians. It is my belief that had the USA spoken a different language, or if the history of the 20th century threw up a different super-power, then we might not be using English as our lingua franca. However, building on the foundations of the British Empire, the American Empire was able to spread its language all over the world.
English was, totally by accident, in the right place at the right time.
What do you think? Was it inevitable that we speak English all over the world? What other language do you think could have become the world’s language? You can leave me a comment on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or on my social media.
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Thanks for listening and I hope to speak to you again next week.