English is the most widely used language in the world and the third most common native language (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish). It’s a language that can offer great beauty and massive frustration in pretty much equal measure, so just why is English so popular?
Well, for a start it’s the native language of many countries including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and several Caribbean nations. eound 400 million people globally speak English as their first language. It’s an official language of many organisations too including the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee and the European Union and is therefore widely learned as a second language throughout the world.
A Short History of English
English originated from a fusion of dialects brought to the east coast of Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century. The Norman conquest in the 11th century led to some heavy borrowing from Norman French and English has been borrowing words from other languages ever since. This gave rise to Middle English, as used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What we know as Modern English dates from about 1550 and includes the language of Shakespeare.
The spread of English beyond the British Isles came with the growth of the British Empire from the 16th through to the 19th centuries, giving the language a global reach as it became the standard means of communication across the colonies. As a result English is widely used in North America, Africa and India.
This expansion led to English overtaking French as the dominant language of global diplomacy by the latter half of the 19th century. Many former colonial countries have continued to keep English as their official second language; particularly where there is more than one indigenous tongue, in order to avoid the political problems of favouring one native language over another. The growth of the United States as a superpower after the Second World War and its increasing trade influence thereafter has also helped the spread of English across the globe. US culture from movies, television and popular music has also spread across the world, again taking the English language with it.
There are of course variations in English – the playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said that the US and the UK were “two nations divided by a common language” and there are a range of creole and pidgin varieties of English in use around the world. Within the UK itself there are regional dialects and accents though for the most part these are confined to differences in pronunciation rather than major changes to vocabulary or grammar.
In the modern world English is an essential requirement for a number of occupations and professions. It’s the language of air traffic control for example so all pilots and controllers must speak it. It’s also the official language of maritime communication so it’s key to the movement of goods and passengers around the world. Knowledge of English is also needed for medicine and computing again helping to spread its influence. It’s increasingly becoming the language of business around the world too as our economies become more globalised. Books, newspapers and magazines published in English are available around the planet and it’s the most commonly used language of the sciences allowing free exchange of information and research.
As a consequence it’s estimated that more than a billion people now speak English to at least a basic level. English language tuition is therefore a sought after commodity in all countries. In the EU English is the most commonly studied foreign language with almost 90% of schoolchildren learning it.
Steven Capocci is a freelance writer who sought some English language tuition early on in his career to ensure his writing was as good as it could be.
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