It’s estimated that more than 1.75 billion people around the world speak English, that’s a quarter of the world’s population. Around 400 million people speak English as their first language with more than a billion knowing it as their secondary tongue, it’s also the official language in at least 59 countries and the lingua franca of many more. While English is not the most spoken language around the world, English is the language of business, diplomacy, science and much more. If we were to rate English on a financial level, its GDP would massively overshadow other languages. Yet English is just one of 7000+ languages spoken globally so how did it become the most important global language and will it manage to continue to hold its business and cultural dominance?
A brief history of the English language
Belonging to the Indo-European family of the languages, English is a West Germanic language that has its roots in the nomads that used to roam the southeastern European plains some 5000 years ago. As migrations happened in the 5th and 6th centuries, Old English began to take form. Words were taken from French during the Norman conquests of 1066 and in the 12th century English transformed from Old to Middle English as Greek and Latin words began to enter and influence the language. In the 1500s, English began to transform the modern English we recognise and use today. Between trade, conquest, religion, and British colonialism, English spread across the world.
The closest modern relative to the English language is Frisian. It is 80 lexically similar to English and is a language still spoken in parts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, though by only around 450,000 people.
English’s success is a result of money, status, and politics as well as the ease with which it borrows words from other languages and its flexibility in adapting to changes in the world and technology. Economic and technological development has played a major role in English’s dominance. The US still leads economically and has been one of the most dominating modern cultures, which was heavily influential to English’s dominance during the birth of the internet. The result of this history and influence has led to other countries to place a high value on English speakers, in that those that can speak and use English have a higher chance of getting ahead or entering the global elite, thus furthering English’s influence and dominance in business and more. For example, China has the most speakers of English as a second language than any other country.
While English generally remains the international business language, global business is changing and its dominance is starting to waver as more and more companies aim to enter other markets and expand using a localized marketing and advertising transcreation strategy for their business.
How technology has changed the prevalence of English
When the internet first started in 1998, there were around 70 million internet users with English speakers accounting for over 80 of them. However, since then there has been a steady decline in the percentages of web pages that are in English. In 1998, 75 of the internet was in English whereas now it’s only around 25.9. Today Simplified Chinese alone accounts for 19.4 of web content, just shy of English, which shows the growing trend of companies expanding into different global markets with the use of technology and the necessary use of translation and localization for websites, ecommerce translation services, eLearning platforms, and more.
Further studies have also found that more than half of consumers would pay more for a product if it were presented to them on a platform that’s in their own language. This shift away from English has even been noted by The British Council as far back as 2006 when it published a report that stated that even though English is becoming more widely spoken, its dominance as a language appears to be fading. This shift is happening for a variety of reasons.
Countries with large populations now have more access to technology than they did in the past and many of these same countries also have a growing number of middle-class consumers that are eager to spend money. With 72.1 of consumers spending all or most of their time on web pages in their own language, the demand for localization and translation services and shift away from English has increased. Other factors such as continued globalization in general, changes in the economy, and other creative alternatives such as emojis may also be playing a factor in the prevalence of the English language in business and online.
English’s future as a global language
It’s estimated that somewhere between 50-90 of the world’s languages will be extinct in the next century. This is because linguists believe that with more people moving around and with native languages not being passed on to younger generations there will be a drop in the overall number of global languages.
A Dutch sociologist named Abram de Swaan classifies languages into four categories. The peripheral language category includes 98% of the world’s languages but is spoken by less than 10% of humanity. The national or central category include languages that have a territory to call their own and are written and taught in schools. Next, in the category of supercentral languages is Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili as each of them host around 100 million speakers or more and are the most commonly spoken second languages worldwide. At the top, is the ‘hypercentral’ language. It is the language that holds the whole language system together and that crown is held by none other than English. Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, who has written on language, similarly described English as a “universal language” and that this status is held not by the number of native speakers of the language but rather by the greatest number of non-native speakers.
With that said, it seems likely that English will continue to hold its super-power status for the time being, however, it will also have to continue to make way for other supercentral languages that are growing within political and economic spheres. For example, China’s presence outside of Asia continues to grow and as other countries and populations continue to gain traction in online consumer markets, it means that businesses will need to continue to adapt and recognise that business is no longer an English-only affair.
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