English. It’s a love-hate relationship for most learners. It is the only language that absolutely everyone seems to feel the need to study. Why? This answer is simple, of course. It is the lingua franca, international language of the world, the language almost everyone uses cross-culturally to communicate with each other. English will open so many doors for the average person, allowing them access to better jobs, more people, and migration opportunities. This is obvious. But that is not what this article is about. This article’s question is: why English? And does it have to be English?

Why English?

People say that English is a relatively easy language to learn. with its basic grammatical structures and simple pronunciation, it’s an obvious choice for the international language. But really, I know lots of people who struggle so much with English. And you could argue that almost any language is easy to learn if you put your mind to it. Really, English doesn’t have any inherent features that make it fit to be an international language.

Despite what you may think, English is not the most spoken language in the world – natively. It’s actually number 3 after Chinese Mandarin and Spanish. So in terms of practicality, it would make more sense if everyone else learned Chinese because then there would be less total people in the world who would have to learn a language. Or Spanish, or French, because then there would be fewer total nations that would have to encourage bilingualism. But English now has more than 3 times the number of non-native learners than it has natives. I don’t think this was ever about practicality.

How did it come about? Why was it decided that English would be the international language, compulsory for worldwide aviation, business, travel and pretty much everything else? When did everyone just decide that they needed to learn English? It could have been any language – why was English chosen?

As we’ll see, it always comes back to money and power.

Why English?

English in Politics

The main answer comes down to a number of things that happened throughout history politically. The rise of the British empire and the exportation of English everywhere they landed spread English massively throughout the world. Over the last century, the rise of the United States has been a huge factor that pushed English even more to the forefront in the international community. Now, the political and economic power of the US has a lot to do with the reason that English continues to be a hugely important language. This has lead to English taking over as the international language across a range of different industries.

English in International business and trade

Because of the economic dominance of the US globally, they are able to control much of the international community, including international organisations. If countries want to trade with the economic powerhouse, they are expected to speak the language. This expectation is made more realistic by the fact that many countries already used English in their countries due to the previous dominance of the British.

English in Entertainment

Alongside their economic and political dominance, there is no doubt that the US also dominate the entertainment industry. Hollywood movies are released in countries all over the world,. American music is the most popular music on the planet by far. Even in countries where English is not widely spoken, American (and other music in English) can be heard frequently. In recent years, even English memes have been doing the rounds all over. This has helped English insert itself into cultures all over the world, to stay relevant.

English on The internet

The rise of the internet gave even more prominence to the English language. The web was founded in English, and the top internet companies that we know today are all American: Google, Facebook, Ebay, and Amazon are a few examples. This easily brought the language of the internet to be English by default (www stands for world wide web, and .com stands for commercial). Ever wondered why you can’t use foreign scripts in web addresses? The programming languages are also all based on English. Nowadays, English is the most used language on the internet, with more than a quarter of all internet activity being conducted in English.

English in Education & science

Almost all of the top universities in the world conduct their courses in – you guessed it – English. According to the QS Top Universities ranking, there is only one university in the top 10 that is not located in the US or the UK. ETH Zurich, based in Switzerland, still uses English as the main teaching language for its post-graduate programmes, however. This, again, points to the dominance of the US and the UK as highly dominant countries on the global stage. Most of the most well respected studies and papers to have come out of the last 100 years of academia were written in English and based on the English-speaking world.

Even in the field of linguistics, a discipline dedicated to understanding languages, English dominates. Noam Chomsky (an American) known as the father of modern linguistics, based all his theories on English. Subsequently, all linguistics studies stem from our knowledge of English and how this relates to other languages.

English in Travel

English is the internationally recognised language of aviation. Again, this can be attributed to the relevance of English speaking countries at the time when air travel began to take off (no pun intended). English was declared the international language of travel at a Chicago convention in 1944. In 2008 a language proficiency test was introduced to ensure aviation staff in all countries met a high enough standard of English to be able to work.

While it may not have been officially recognised yet, English is also the international language of tourism. Subway trains in Taipei, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro all repeat their messages in English. Tour guides speak English, and signs up at touristic spots are always in English. Without speaking English, it is usually very difficult to get by in a foreign country (I must add though, that it’s always even easier if you speak the local language).

Is it fair to have English as an international language?

So, English is what it is because of the combined forces of the UK and the US. But should it be this way? I get that there is a need for an international language in today’s world. After all, borders are starting to matter less and less and we can’t expect everyone to learn every language to be able to communicate with each other. But I suppose I just wish that there was a way to make the international language something more fair and beneficial for everyone in the world. It is just not fair on anyone to have English as the international language.

English the international language

The international language is Not Fair for Native English Speakers

I don’t think that having English as the international language is fair on native English speakers. Sure, native English speakers are endlessly advantaged just because we were born into societies where the international language is just our language. Our opportunities are much more abundant than non-natives. We can easily get positions teaching abroad, for example. It’s much easier to get into prestigious schools and universities. We can travel almost anywhere just speaking our native tongue to get by. In most cases, it’s almost unnecessary for us to learn another language. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Many, many things make life so much easier for the average native English speaker. So, the US may have thought it was doing its citizens a solid, but I beleive this has created many issues for them.

Native English speakers are largely monolingual

For one, we don’t have the motivation to learn a second language, especially not from a young age, which means that we don’t benefit from the same cognitive advantage as people who are brought up multilingual.  It’s also a lot harder to learn a second language even when you do try, because wherever you go there are people who will be insistent on practising their English.

We are missing the link between language and culture

English cannot very well be associated with any particular culture. The Nelson Mandela quote comes to mind: “if you talk to a man he understands, that goes to his head. If you speak to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I can see how speakers of other languages would relate to this, but I just don’t. I don’t feel any personal or cultural connection with English. And I feel that I am missing out on something in that sense. Native English speakers are left with the language that is not attached to any particular culture or place, the language that is spoken in a thousand different ways.

English speakers will always be overheard

Finally, it’s kind of silly but no matter where I am, I can never speak my language and be sure that people around me won’t understand. Other people get to speak in their native language when in foreign places, usually with a reasonable reassurance that no-one can understand what they are saying. And I think that’s pretty cool.

 The international language is Not fair for English learners

Is it fair on native speakers of other languages that English is the international language? The answer is of course not. But it’s unfair in a completely different way.

I don’t really like that it is just accepted that everyone should learn English. The stigma that there is something wrong with you or you must be uneducated (or old) if you can’t speak English well is the case in many countries. It just doesn’t sit right with me. Why should the majority of the world have to work so hard their whole lives just to attempt to master English, while we English speakers get a free ride in life and get to just put our feet up and relax?

They are at a disadvantage against natives

Speaking a second language in highly demanding situations such as international politics and business is an inherent disadvantage. No matter how well people learn English, speaking a non-native language is bound to come at a disadvantage to those speakers. Not only because proficiency is lower, but because of the perception many people have towards non-native speakers of their language.

It impacts them economically

I do believe that a lot of the inequalities and imbalances in the world are also caused by this. In many countries, poorer people are less likely to succeed because they haven’t had the chance to learn English well. If you think about it, the countries with the best quality of life are all either English-speaking, or countries where the majority speak English as a second language fluently. Is this a coincidence? I think not.

Again, we see how strongly English is tied to money. The power of English means the demise of languages and cultures, particularly native ones, all over the world

Solution: what can we do to make the international language more fair?

Monolingual World?

You could argue that if everyone learns English to the point that everyone in the world speaks English, it would become completely pointless to learn any other language (other than for fun). If every person in Germany speaks English, for example, why learn German before you go to Germany? And on that note, why would Germans even learn German if they all speak English? Is this where we are headed – a totally monolingual world?

Of course this is not the case. Each person will learn their respective language which goes hand in hand with their country’s culture and history. Even though the number of English learners is growing and growing, and proficiency of non-natives get better and better as research on language teaching and education continues to evolve, those learners will always inherently be at a disadvantage on the international stage. And that is just not fair.

Constructed international Language?

Personally, I like the idea of a constructed international language that is relatively easy for anyone to learn – like Esperanto. I believe that this makes it fairer for everyone to have an equal chance in life.

Everybody should have to learn a language that is not native to them, and this should be the language everyone uses to communicate (like Esperanto). That way there would be a level playing field for everybody to start, and nobody could get salty at anyone for ‘butchering’ their language. Of course, this would not resolve all of the issues, but at least it wouldn’t keep feeding the “greatest nation in the world”, and would reward people who work hard more, instead of just rewarding people for being born.

I believe that moving away from a natural language such as English as the international language is the way to go. Removing the link between politics & money and languages would be a great start to make things more fair in this world. I’m calling for a change. Who’s with me?

Are you a native speaker or have you learned English? Do you agree with this or do you like things the way they are? Let me know in the comments below!~

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Why do we all speak English?

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17 Comments

  1. Wardys Mejía Reply

    I absolutely loved your post! I have never considered that perspective about the lingua franca of the moment (English). Something that I find totally interesting is the fact you propose learning Esperanto as a solution, which I also found to be the solution a while ago when I decided to lean it.

    Personally, being a native Spanish speaker, I love my language, but I like a lot many other languages and I share the same idea as you!

    Thank you for such a nice article!

    • I´m glad you enjoyed reading my article, and nice to know someone has the same idea as me, so I can’t be totally crazy then 😉

    • Alexander Haynes Reply

      Sure it’s true. It shouldn’t be a competition because all natural languages are difficult to learn! Both English and Spanish have their quirks. A neutral communicator seems logical but I doubt the political will is there to push for it. Shame, really. Seems a lovely idea. 😁

  2. Intresting question, especially for a polyglot like me. I speak five languages with English being my fourth. I think that there should definitely be a unifying language which should be neutral and not connected to any country, nation or ethnic group.

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  5. You can (and probably will) find unfairness in every aspect of life. But remember what you learned as a child; the world is not fair. To assert that native English speakers have some sort of privilege over non-English speaking people is insanely demeaning to those with different cultures and criteria for success. It appears the author thinks everyone in the world has an “American” worldview, which is way more damaging than any linguistic advantage English speakers may have.

    TL;DR Typical SJW rhetoric

    • Suzie Reply

      Your assumptions that everyone who speaks English is American is insanely demeaning to those who come from the dozens of other English-speaking countries. See how that works?
      Sorry, but you lost me with that remark.

      • Yes! As I read the OP’s comment, I was thinking of the same reply. Great job!

        I’ve been reading over your blog articles because I’m currently working on a language/travel project. Great posts so far!

        I think part of the reason English has become the lingua franca is based on the main countries’ population that speaks the language and their unwillingness to learn another language. For example, in the States, we learn a foreign language waaaay too late in life. We should be learning it at a younger age. Also, in the past foreigners who moved to the States were forced to abandon their heritage language and to raise monolingual children (thanks a lot, FDR *grrrr*). So now since the U.S., Canada (only a small part of that country is bilingual), the UK, South Africa, Australia, NZ, etc. are powerful, big countries with great influence, other countries ostensibly must succumb to the primary language of that more powerful, larger group of countries, which is English. I really wish, as you stated, we could ALL learn a universal language. That would be the best solution, but I don’t think it’ll ever happen :(.

        Memoria

        • Suzie Reply

          Thanks for your comment 🙂 I totally agree, and I think the US in particular contributed to making English such a global language. I doubt it will ever happen either, but one can only hope, right!

        • Alex Haynes Reply

          I think it has a lot to do with the power that the (former) British empire use to hold and now economic might of the USA undoubtedly holds in the world. English gradually grew in popularity through the 20th Century, although I’m interested who made the firm decisions about aviation, seafaring and international business using English officially?? Were those native english speakers perhaps. Was a vote taken? Any why was an auxiliary such as Esperanto not on the table! Ugh…. 😉

  6. Alexander Haynes Reply

    Wow. So glad I am not the only person saying this. As an English speaker and a native from England, it serves me fine to have English where it is. But it is wrong on so many levels. Esperanto makes much more sense logically. In fact it was going to be the official language of he predecessor to the un, the league of nation’s, but a Frenchman vetoed it! At that time french was the language of international diplomacy. Now we all suffer the consequences. It may be too late! But it has my vote. Thank you for putting this into words for us all 😁

  7. Alexander Haynes Reply

    Perhaps you could do a post pointing out the linguistic advantages of Esperanto as an auxiliary. There are so many. For starters it takes 1/4 of the study time of french, Spanish or English!

    • Suzie Reply

      I’m no expert, but I would gladly publish a guest post from you if you want to write about that! 🙂

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