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According to a guy on Quora:

English became the lingua-franca of the world because of the United states and not England. But, throughout the 17th and 18th century, many Europeans (English, french, Dutch, Spanish, Scottish, Swedish) made their settlements there. But, the US speaks English.

Why? Because English was more powerful than any other European nation in US at that time.

How were they powerful? Because, most of their revenues they used for their military came from India. There is not enough money in the enitre England to repay India the money they looted from here. So, if France had been successful in India, I suppose even they would have been indifferent to India.

Is this true? If France had been the nation that managed to successfully rule India, would we be using French on this site?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Samuel Russell, CGCampbell, Pieter Geerkens, Mark, Semaphore Jul 13 '15 at 8:23

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    There's a difference between what made English the world's international language, and what's causing it to continue to expand now. For the former, thank the British Empire. For the latter, thank the US (because of the internet, for the most part). – HopelessN00b Feb 16 '15 at 0:04
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    @SS : building roads and railroads, constructing factories, investing in equipment and paying workers is not the same as acquiring guns to loot. I never claimed that everything the British did was fair, I just said that you can't compare it to looting. I'm not even British, I wrote only because I hate when people pretend to ask a question on this site but their real purpose is to disguise rants as questions and to hide payloads of political propaganda into their questions. Your question body has not much to do with the question title, and is in fact hate speech. – vsz Feb 16 '15 at 9:02
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    @SS : If you were sincere with the question you wouldn't put so much weight on the opportunity to make political statements. – vsz Feb 16 '15 at 9:03
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    It's interesting that despite English being the lingua franca, we use an Italian phrase to describe that situation :-) – Rikki Feb 16 '15 at 11:20
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    As a modern-day English person, you can say what you feel you need to say about Clive of India et al, without me feeling threatened. Hating what some English guy did 250 years ago isn't hate speech. That said, the assertion "There is not enough money in the enitre England to repay India the money they looted from here", while its truth or falsehood clearly is going to depend on the interest rate applied, either way doesn't seem relevant to the question. Supposing England could or couldn't afford reparations, what has that to do with the language(s) spoken in the UN? – Steve Jessop Feb 17 '15 at 15:17
32

I don't think there's much truth in this claim.

Although the US does speak English, the spread of the English language is because British empire was the most successful amongst colonial empires. Although India was one of the important colonies (the so-called Jewel in the Crown), it wasn't the only one. There were other colonies in Australia, Canada, Africa and later provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

English was used for administration of these overseas provinces. So the natives who wanted to secure a job in the administration had to have the knowledge of English. This trend continued in most of the provinces after independence and decolonization, and so English became the Lingua Franca.

  • 1. French empire at its peak was comparable to the British empire. 2. At the time when English started to dominate, British empire already did not exist and US was not a part of it. On my opinion, it is US development which is responsible for the spread of English. – Alex Feb 15 '15 at 16:07
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    @Alex 1. According to this, French empire was not comparable to British empire. British empire had 20% of world population, whereas French empire had only 5%. Also, arguably, Indian subcontinent was economically far too more beneficial than any other colony (for England or for France). 2. Development of US doesn't explain why Indian subcontinent and other former colonies use English. – taninamdar Feb 15 '15 at 16:12
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    @taninamdar: I suggest English remains the lingua franca of the Indian subcontinent in part because there are so many native languages spoken there by diverse ethnic/cultural groups. For one - say Hindi - to dominate would mean the other cultures had to subordinate themselves to that culture. And of course it gives access to the culture & technology of the rest of the English-speaking world. – jamesqf Feb 16 '15 at 4:26
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    Excellent answer - other than a few pacific islands, I'm struggling to find a single area of the world that's heavily English speaking and wasn't part of the British empire? English speaking levels in China are probably the only major change post WWII, but that appears to be more a result of English already being the Lingua Franca, than American trade. The US may be part of the force propagating the current Lingua Franca, but that is very different to being responsible for the creation of such – Jon Story Feb 16 '15 at 11:39
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    It was actually only relatively recently that English became the language of international diplomacy. The first great international event at which English was the official language, I think I am right in saying, was the Congress of Berlin of 1878. That was the meting which settled issues in the Balkans, and also divided up Africa. Prior to that French had been the language of diplomacy. Indeed the old British Passports (of the time of my youth) used to have everything written in English and in French. (they now contain the entire multiplicity of languages of the European Union!) – WS2 Feb 18 '15 at 23:52
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The claims you cite are based on several wrong assumptions.

  1. That the development of the US strongly depended on investment from Britain. British colonies are independent since 1776, and long before that they were self-sufficient (Otherwise they would not fight for independence:-)

  2. British rule in India formally started much later, in 1850. It is true that there was an East India company before that, which controlled most of India since approximately 1750. So there is no evidence that money coming from India somehow played a substantial role in the development of the US.

Now on the language. I refer to the Wikipedia article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_the_United_States

From a table in this paper we see that in 1790 Population of the US was 3.9 million, of which 2.1 were native English-speakers. The second largest part was Africans and the third - Irish. Certainly the English-speakers had a dominant position in the society, this explains why English became the language of the country. Population of the French colonies on the modern territory of the US was smaller by the orders of magnitude (sorry, I did not find the exact numbers but it is certain that it was negligible in comparison with English-speaking population).

So the reason why US is an English-speaking country is apparently that more British were wiling to emigrate and or had higher birth rate.

At the time when US was created it was certainly very far from being a great power. It became a great power only in the middle of 20-s century, and this is why English dominates today.

In the first part of 20-th century there was no English domination yet. For example, in sciences, German and French were more common. So worldwide domination of English is a relatively recent phenomenon.

EDIT. On population of French colonies in America. I found that in 1763 the ratio of English and French population was 20:1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_colonization_of_the_Americas

  • 1
    re: your first point, the US was strongly dependent on British capital through the 19th century. For example: "We wouldn't have had an Industrial Revolution, at least not at that time at that speed, if it hadn't been for the rather massive participation of foreign capital." You can google around for more instances, especially pertaining to the railroads. America was capital poor--which was inevitable because it was so new--and Britain was capital rich, so British capital flowed across the Atlantic. – two sheds Feb 15 '15 at 20:32
  • After the independence, British capital flowed where it was profitable. for some reasons it did not flow to Russia, for example:-) And I am sure these reasons were not the languge:-) – Alex Feb 16 '15 at 1:22
  • Yeah, didn't mean to imply the British were altruistic ;-) – two sheds Feb 16 '15 at 1:34
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    The United States became a Great Power in the late 19th Century. By 1898 it was much stronger than the most powerful non-Great European Power. The United Kingdom was the only country ahead of the United States in industrialization. (Yes, Germany had the leading Chemical Engineering industry -- but just compare the size of the steel, railroad, and auto industries.) By 1918, America's intervention on the Western Front of the Great War was decisive. – Jasper Feb 16 '15 at 15:45
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    Bear in mind a lot of the Irish people at that time would have been Irish-speaking. – Sean D Feb 17 '15 at 14:03
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I think it is most properly represented as a mix of both.

Prior to WWII, British (UK) English did expand because:

  • It was the language of administration of the Empire. If the natives wanted to be anywhere near the seat of power, they had to learn English. If they could afford to, many would send their children to study in England1.

  • Commercially, you would access to British goods through British firms, so you would need to have someone to translate the correspondence with them. And the UK was the model of a successful nation that everybody tried to imitate.

That said, trade before WWII was relatively limited (remember, ships were loaded and unloaded by hand), communication media few and slow and, for most countries, literacy rates even in their own language were quite low, so very few people would have been English speaking.

After WWII, the UK loses the Empire and the USA takes its role as a commercial and manufacturing powerhouse, and we see the development of:

  • Mass transportation, which causes both an increase in trade and other exchanges (e.g. tourism, migration) 2.
  • Massive presence of US military bases around the world, exposing people who otherwise had no foreign contact to US English.
  • Continuous improvement of school systems, which last for more years and -often- include foreign language studies.
  • Explosion of mass media, which gives the public access to culture in English3. In some cases, even local artists begin using English because of the "cool" factor.
  • Add to that the fact that in most countries there was already a small nucleus of English-speaking people who could help teach other people, which would have accelerated the change.

Note that I am not saying that all of the expansion of English post WWII was due to the USA4. I am pointing that the factors that favored the expansion of English appeared in a timeframe where the major English power was the USA, but the UK still had some influence at that time (through tourism, trade, culture, etc.).

1 In fact, the same happened in France colonies, but as stated somewhere those accounted for less population.

2 Ok, in some places like Europe, English-speaking tourism was principally from the UK and not from the USA.

3 Even something as "silly" as understanding pop song lyrics was a motivation to learning English that our parents had but our grandfathers did not.

4 And, conversely, probably there were parts of the world prior to WWII where English was introduced due to US influence.

  • 3
    +1 because I generally agree, but one quibble re: "trade before WWII was relatively limited." That's true if you're referring to the two decades before WWII, but not true if you go back further. See this: "This “first wave of globalisation” from about 1870 until 1913 led to a degree of international integration – measured by trade-to-output ratios – that many countries only achieved again in the mid-1990s." – two sheds Feb 15 '15 at 20:21
  • @twosheds Thanks for the tip, I'll look into it and change it accordingly. – SJuan76 Feb 16 '15 at 8:12
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The most dominating language in science and the most learned foreign language before WWII was German. After Germany's defeat most of Europe fell under British and American occupation. Also a lot of scientists emigrated to the US. This determined the widespread use of English.

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    If you add citations, it'd be nice. – Time Portal Feb 15 '15 at 16:24
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    Why would scientists determine what the common folk spoke, especially in the countries they emigrated from? How does the relatively short-term occupation of Germany amount to occupying "most of Europe"? – Matthew Read Feb 15 '15 at 23:36
  • @Matthew Read common people do not speak English, English is lingua franca for those who want international communication or build a carrier. – Anixx Feb 16 '15 at 9:38
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    [Citation needed] - I've seen no evidence for this, whatsoever Germany certainly lost scientific influence post WWII, and it certainly had a certain scientific strength prior to said conflict, but I can't find anything to suggest Germany "dominated" language in science or was the most learned foreign language. – Jon Story Feb 16 '15 at 11:35
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    Actually, the decline in German as the dominant language of science started with WWI, not WWII. Prior to WWI, German was definitely the predominant language for international scientific writing. bbc.com/news/magazine-29543708 One example of this was organic chemistry, where many of the important references of the day were in German. – barbecue Feb 17 '15 at 14:34
3

I'd think a major factor has been that two consecutive global superpowers, Britain and then the USA, have had English as their main language has played a large part in this.

I'd back this up with Russian being a relatively common language to learn in the cold war period, whereas now it's considered maybe less useful, and this might be because Russia is way less influential than it once was.

In addition, this has made English an attractive language to learn for non-native speakers, either through cultural necessity (eg colonial India) or through utility (eg it's a good language to learn because of aspirations to move to Britain or the US, or simply because it's widely understood)

2

I believe three factors contributed to English being today's lingua franca:

  1. as others have already mentioned, Great Britain was an "empire where the sun would never set" in the 18th century
  2. US pop culture and technological advances after world war II (e.g. Elvis and the Internet)
  3. English is a really simple language to learn (hardly any grammar, declension, cases, etc.)
1

It is important to note that English has became "The" lingua franca only recently - a few decades ago. It's only since then that English is the natural choice for the first foreign language for everybody around the world. Even in the 70's and 80's it wasn't the case. Consequently, it wasn't because of the (already non-existent) might of the British Empire and certainly wasn't because of the military might of the US - you don't learn a language based on the might of their army, especially not in peace time. Also, the cause can't be the size of the British Empire: although it helped to spread the English language within the Empire, but only this wouldn't make the English language any more special than the French or Spanish.

English becoming the one and only lingua franca started with the rapid spreading of computers and specially the internet. The popular US culture ( movies, music) also helped to strengthen this process as well as other factors (like economic power, etc) but it all started with computers. As they rapidly became indispensable in our daily lives, so did the English language.

  • I'm late to the party, but I disagree. Certainly the prevalence of US bases in Europe help spread English, as well as the global dominance of US culture - Elvis, the Beatles, etc. that even the USSR started copying them for their propaganda material (youtube.com/watch?v=1LrUTzijqz8). I would argue that the spread of English was due to: the Marshal plan for Europe, and the size of the US economy, which promoted English throughout East Asian countries for business. In my home country, we started learning English long before we got the internet. – Evil Washing Machine Dec 21 '15 at 1:09
  • What the internet guarantees, however, is that English will never be supplanted, atleast not in our lifetimes. The critical mass of culture and now technology is too great, and I can tell you English is a lot easier to learn than Mandarin, which I have struggled to grasp for 5 years of high school to no success! – Evil Washing Machine Dec 21 '15 at 1:12
  • @EvilWashingMachine The size of the US economy in itself would only explain why English became one of the world's leading languages - but not why it is THE lingua franca even in countries where the main economic partners are not the US or the UK. Like in Central/Eastern Europe where Germany is the main economical influence. And was even more so when English had already became the number one language in these countries. – David Herskovics Dec 25 '15 at 22:35
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English came to dominate the world during the last 50 years for 2 major reasons:

1) The United States has the largest number of wealthiest consumers. If you manufacture anything anywhere in the world you are going to want to do what you can to sell into the United States. You have to learn the language of your customers if you want to sell to them. By contrast most other countries either don't have sufficient numbers of consumers to be worth selling into (for most products) or the consumers they have don't have a lot of disposable income.

2) The United States culture is the least racist and least nationalist culture in the world. In just about every other culture and country in the world there is an inbred sense that as humans, they are superior. That is why in many countries they view "mixed race" individuals with distaste. They do not want to learn the language of a country that they know looks down on them. But the United States does not look down on any country. Even the Muslim countries, we generally don't view the Muslim people as automatically bad - we (often) view their governments as horrible and repressive, but not the people themselves. By contrast, if you go today to a country like, for example, Japan and ask them who is better a Chinese person or a Japanese person you will be told Japanese all the way. These other cultures look down on everyone not their culture and make no secret of it. So why would a Japanese person want to learn Mandarin? They know the Chinese people look down on them. Why would an Egyptian want to learn Hebrew, they know the Israeli's look down on them. And so on and so on. All these cultures prefer to use English to communicate with each other, than to engage with each other directly. They can all agree with each other that they are superior to the Americans and save face by not having to learn each other's language when they can just learn English.

it's very hard for US citizens to understand this these days but never forget that WWII was mainly started over racial arguments (superior master race, and all that garbage)

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    Second point is fiction. – Semaphore Feb 16 '15 at 10:15
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    Crazy, crazy fiction, to the point I expect it's actually a troll. Claims the US is the least racist and nationalist culture in the world (news flash, children in most other countries don't have to sing the national anthem at school...) then proceeds to be exceptionally racist and nationalistic. – Jon Story Feb 16 '15 at 11:34
  • @JonStory As a pedantic point, I've never seen a public school in the US where kids had to sing the national anthem. Though they often do have say the "Pledge of Allegiance" which I think makes your point at least as well. – Beska Feb 16 '15 at 14:12
  • Potato Tomato... as you say, it makes a similar point – Jon Story Feb 16 '15 at 15:10
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    the least racist and least nationalist culture in the world Lol! @Ted, I enjoyed your post, but if it has anything to with historical fact then each point can be substantiated with references to authoritative sources. Are you able to add them? – andy256 Feb 17 '15 at 6:24
-1

Something else to consider is the language its self may lend to the spread. As noted by John Story, English has stolen many words and ideas from other languages. Many language purists bemoan this as it makes it more difficult to learn, but the richer vocabulary allows for more ideas to be expressed concisely leading to an easier ability to express new ideas. Also since English has stolen from so many languages, its similarity to other languages makes it less intimidating to new students.

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    How is it an answer? – Time Portal Feb 17 '15 at 1:12
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    Moreover it assumes that other languages are not equally "rich" or diverse/unable to express new ideas equally well, which are all opinionated and poor reasoning. – Rajib Feb 17 '15 at 9:30

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