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I love the English and English.

I am truly fascinated by the expansion of the English language across the globe. According to linguists all languages are great and unique. If it is a fact, why English has become global language setting aside all other languages

Is it because of colonization or is it because of the felicity of expression and the resourcefulness of the language?

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Professor David Crystal has written a whole book on this, but it is possible to provide a reasonable answer without going to great lengths. First, though, it would help to define what a global language is. Why, for example, is English widely considered to be the global language when there are far more native speakers of Mandarin?

Crystal, in English as a Global Language (Cambridge, 2nd edition, 2003), defines a global language thus:

A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country....the notion of ‘special role’ has many facets. Such a role will be most evident in countries where large numbers of the people speak the language...

but

mother-tongue use by itself cannot give a language global status. To achieve such a status, a language has to be taken up by other countries around the world. They must decide to give it a special place within their communities, even though they may have few (or no) mother-tongue speakers.

This, Crystal goes on to say, can be done in one of two ways: either the language is given official status or

It becomes the language which children are most likely to be taught when they arrive in school, and the one most available to adults who – for whatever reason – never learned it, or learned it badly, in their early educational years.

The specifics of Crystal's definition may be disputed by other academics (see 'The Handbook of Language and Globalization') but few (if any) within the mainstream would argue that English isn't a global language, even if they do not agree on what exactly that means.


On 'Why English?', Crystal provides this principal reason, applicable not just English now but other languages in the past:

A language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power.

That has, historically, been the initial stage, but it takes more:

It may take a militarily powerful nation to establish a language, but it takes an economically powerful one to maintain and expand it. This has always been the case, but it became a particularly critical factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with economic developments beginning to operate on a global scale, supported by the new communication technologies – telegraph, telephone, radio – and fostering the emergence of massive multinational organizations...

Any language at the centre of such an explosion of international activity would suddenly have found itself with a global status. And English,.... was apparently ‘in the right place at the right time’.... By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain had become the world’s leading industrial and trading country. By the end of the century, the population of the USA (then approaching 100 million) was larger than that of any of the countries of western Europe, and its economy was the most productive and the fastest growing in the world. British political imperialism had sent English around the globe.... During the twentieth century, this world presence was maintained and promoted almost single-handedly through the economic supremacy of the new American superpower. Economics replaced politics as the chief driving force. And the language behind the US dollar was English.

Crystal develops the last part of the above later in his book:

In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth it was the language of the leading economic power – the USA. As a result, when new technologies brought new linguistic opportunities, English emerged as a firstrank language in industries which affected all aspects of society – the press, advertising, broadcasting, motion pictures, sound recording, transport and communications.

Both Crystal and Salikoko S. Mufwene draw parallels with the Roman empire and Latin (while acknowledging that Latin was international rather than global), though Mufwene places a particular emphasis on colonization:

Much of the impetus that today’s globalization has given to the spread of English is also largely attributable to the earlier role that colonization played in expanding the language geographically and demographically.

Source: 'Globalization, Global English, World English(es)', in Nikolas Coupland (ed.), 'The Handbook of Language and Globalization' (John Wiley & Sons, 2011)

What can also be taken from this is that different regions and countries have had very different experiences and histories with English. Not only did Britain not colonize the entire world, the colonization, for example, of Australia was very different to that of Ghana. Thus, while many similar factors can be ascribed to most countries or regions, the extent of their roles in the spread of English can vary greatly.

At first glance, one might consider films and music to be important, even critical, in English becoming a global language. However, while they have certainly contributed (especially in facilitating learning for those with the desire to do so), they would have been unlikely to have had much impact on their own. Witness, for example, the widespread exposure to Bollywwod films in West Africa over several decades; whilst some of the more fanatical fans have memorized the (mostly) Hindi dialogue, it has not led to them actually learning the language (personal experience of Mali and Burkina Faso since the early 1980s backs this up). Nor did my Danish grandparents ever learn any English (OK, 10 words at most), despite listening to British and American music, and seeing mostly British TV series almost daily on TV, for many decades. In short, except in rare circumstances, movies and music are at most two among many other factors in the spread of English.

Of greater importance were (and are) computers and the internet. They were at the start primarily developed and spread by Americans, and then became a means by which millions could more easily access and study a language which could help them (for example) get a better job. But, as Crystal observes, the effect the internet will have on English as a global language in the future is hard to predict:

In a few generations’ time, the Net will not be like anything we know today. Automatic speech synthesis and recognition will be routine, and (notwithstanding the difficulties described on p. 27) more use will be made of automatic translation. The arrival of high-quality immediate translation facilities will have a major impact on the use of English (or any lingua franca) on the Net.

A number of other reasons have been put forward as to why English has become a global language, mostly summarized in this History of English article under the section Is English Appropriate for a Global Language?, but the author concludes that

the intrinsic appeal of English as a world language is probably overblown and specious, and largely based on chauvinism or naïveté. It is unlikely that linguistic factors are of great importance in a language's rise to the status of world language,...

(This site has a useful sources and links page for those who wish to explore the history of English further.) Crystal himself states:

A language does not become a global language because of its intrinsic structural properties, or because of the size of its vocabulary, or because it has been a vehicle of a great literature in the past, or because it was once associated with a great culture or religion. These are all factors which can motivate someone to learn a language, of course, but none of them alone, or in combination, can ensure a language’s world spread. Indeed, such factors cannot even guarantee survival as a living language – as is clear from the case of Latin, learned today as a classical language by only a scholarly and religious few. Correspondingly, inconvenient structural properties (such as awkward spelling) do not stop a language achieving international status either.

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    I'm still working on this answer (and trying not to make it too long!), but one has to be careful not to overstate Hollywood; while it is a factor, films are dubbed in many countries. – Lars Bosteen Sep 6 at 0:58
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    @axsvl77: There are a number (presumably large, though I have no data) of people to whom Hollywood and rock & roll are at best irrelevant (or indeed, something to be actively avoided), yet who still use English for other reasons. – jamesqf Sep 6 at 3:59
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    @jamesqf I don't think there's a disagreement here. Crystal (and others) see science & technology as part of, if not integral, to economic power. – Lars Bosteen Sep 6 at 4:20
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    @Bregalad Not really. English-as-a-second-language is very often a separated language on its own. If the USA crashes out as a superpower and China takes its place in a hundred years a Colombian and a Dane could be communicating in a not-really-tonal chinese that no chinese native could understand, just as today many english monolinguals can't understand two non-native english speackers talking between them. – Rekesoft Sep 6 at 10:39
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    I do not know why this question was migrated from Linguistics when David Crystal, a famous linguist dealt with this topic.Even the questiom is very straight, it was kept on hold.There is nothing to edit my question.Since it has got 6 up votes, it is not too broad or out of topic – Englishmonger Sep 7 at 7:15
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Throughout times multiple languages were the dominant ones in Europe. Mostly it was as follows:

  • Greek - because of Greek philosophy, crafts and conquests of Alexander the Great.
  • Latin - because of Roman Empire and Roman law.
  • French - Because of the philosophy, Versailles, and the French revolution
  • German - because of German technology, science and philosophy
  • And, finally, English.

As late as first half of XXth century it was German which was the dominant language. Scientific papers were written in German, German was the most taught foreign language in the USSR, etc...

But everything changed with Nazism. German language earned a kind of stigma. Some people in Europe would shake if they heard some German speech around.

In the USSR, in particular, the share of people learning German dropped considerably after WWII.

Another factor was that before WWII most Jews in Europe spoke Yiddish which is close to German to such extent that in the Austro-Hungary Jews were classified as German-speakers. It was definitely easy for them to communicate in German. And many scientists were Jewish (Einstein, Ehrenfest, Friedman, Minkowski etc).

But in the course of WWII many Jews were killed and those who were not decided to abandon Yiddish in favor of Hebrew, and German in favor of English as many scientists emigrated to the USA.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 5 at 20:59
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    Greek was never a dominant language in Europe. Something like 98% of Alexander's conquests were not in Europe. – C Monsour Sep 5 at 23:31
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    Greek was a language of trade around the Mediterranean, and of some elites in that area (even in Rome...). – paul garrett Sep 6 at 0:32
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    I disagree with German ever being a truely international language. In the beginning of the XXth century, French was way more used than German for diplomacy or trade – David Sep 6 at 8:21
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    @David, German was the language of physics and engineering. – Mark Sep 6 at 23:18
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We owe the dominance of English to the British Empire.

Decades, and in some cases centuries, of British rule and emigration have left their mark on the independent nations that arose from the British Empire. The empire established the use of English in regions around the world. Today it is the primary language of up to 460 million people and is spoken by about one and a half billion as a first, second or foreign language.

The spread of English from the latter half of the 20th century has been helped in part by the cultural and economic influence of the United States, itself originally formed from British colonies.

As you may be aware, at its greatest extent the British Empire covered more than one quarter of the world's land area, significantly bigger than the next-biggest Mongol Empire which covered "only" 18% of the world.

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    You must mean "more than a quarter of Earth's land surface". More than 70% of the Earth;s surface is ocean, and the British Empire never controlled anything like the vast majority of the rest. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 8 at 2:08
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    Fun fact: the dominance of English in diplomacy, science, trade, etc came in mid 20th century, ie at the dawn of the British Empire. If nowadays dominance is due to a single country / event than it is much more the emergence of US as global superpower. – Greg Sep 8 at 4:09
  • @Greg I think Allure is saying that the US used to be part of the British Empire too. Might be right. – axsvl77 Sep 8 at 10:59

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