Have you ever wondered why English is the global language that lives in just about every dazzling city and dark corner of the world?
I dare you to find me one country where not a single community speaks English. Go on!
So what’s the deal? Why is English so enormously popular, and how on earth did this even happen?
The answer might not be what you think, and here’s a clue: it’s NOT because English is easy.
What’s more, there’s an excellent chance that our great-grandkids will be obsessed with a different language to English.
Know what it is? Tell you what I think at the end!
Keep scrolling to read this post as an article or hit play on the video above to watch the video version to find out why English is the global language.
By the way, even if the English is the global language, if you only speak English, you miss out on a lot of opportunities for connection.
If you want to learn a new language fast, though stories, not rules, check out my courses which teach you through StoryLearning®. Find out more and claim you free 7-day trial of the method.
Who Speaks English?
Around 400 million people speak English as a native language, and over a billion speak it as a second language.
So although Mandarin and Spanish have more speakers in the world, when you combine native and non-native English speakers, English comes out tops.
It's the official language of 67 countries and 27 non-sovereign entities.
And all those Mandarin and Spanish speakers? They’re keeping English teachers in jobs!
So if English the Giant is so powerful, what's powering it? Let’s see…
The Need For A Global Language
The world WANTS a global language so that people can communicate with one another. It’s a political thing, an economic thing and a social thing.
So who gets to decide what that language should be? Whoever it is, they are holding the power.
Okay, remember Latin?
A thousand years ago, do you think they would’ve accepted that Latin would one day be spoken by…let’s see…no-one?! Vatican City excluded.
You would’ve been laughed out of town for suggesting it!
But language power isn’t just about who’s wearing the crown (or carrying the whip!)
People also speak the language they most often encounter – especially if those encounters are good – more on that later.
So sorry guys if you thought English was popular because it’s easy; that’s not it!
Some languages, like Russian, grew enormous despite being devastatingly HARD to learn.
So there must be another reason. Stay with me here…
In ancient times, Aramaic had the same origins as Hebrew, but while Hebrew stayed localised, Aramaic spread like wildfire over a vast territory until it was the lingua franca of the entire Persian Empire!
Well, Aramaic speakers were the adventurous, nomadic type. Conquerors, too.
And back then, language got around with human carriers. Even the Persian King Darius chose Aramaic as the language to rule with. Not Persian.
It was the smart move. How does language get around now? Hold on to that thought.
So, Aramaic was an ancient lingua franca. Later in the 17th century Latin was a lingua franca. And then French got super popular in the 18th century and became Europe’s first lingua franca.
It was only during the 20th century that English started overtaking French, and before long, English was the most widely-spoken and written language that has ever existed!
Yep, English is the world’s first GLOBAL lingua franca.
But to understand why English is the global language, let’s pay a little visit to its childhood.
Because English wasn’t always such a beast…
Why English Is The Global Language: How English Started
It all started when Germanic migrants came to Britain in the 5th to 7th centuries, bringing their Anglo-Frisian dialects along.
But what language did these settlers find the locals speaking? Well, let’s see. The first Britons had been indigenous Celtic people. Then the Latin-speaking Romans came along and conquered them, creating the Province of Britannia.
So now the islands were Romano-British, and the Celts started speaking a British vulgar Latin.
And then in the year 410 the Romans left, but their language stayed.
So now we’re back to the Germanic migrants who spoke languages we now call Old English, and they became known as the Anglo-Saxons who eventually formed England.
Guys, there’s a lot more history here and we can dig deeper into the English language in another post.
For now, let’s just figure out why English became a supergiant, and what powered it.
And it started with something that made it different from other lingua francas that came before.
The British Empire
Ok, so by the 16th century the English-speaking British Empire was taking root.
So what? It’s such a small territory.
But for that wildfire effect to happen with the language, all English needed was adventurous people.
And this time it wasn’t just wandering nomads, it was people with ships. English was taken all around the world by the sailors, pilgrims, traders, soldiers and missionaries of the British Empire.
And a lot of them sailed across the sea to the Americas. “But they weren’t the only explorers, Olly” — you may be saying.
Nope. Lots of French and Dutch colonies were starting in America, too. The difference was the French and Dutch were mostly looking for resources, whereas the Empire was looking to settle.
Ever heard that saying, “The sun never set on the British Empire”? Let’s see how it continued…
By the 18th century, the Empire had a presence across almost a quarter of the world’s surface: Canada, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent, the future United States.
The British East India Company traded in India for more than a century – it’s no wonder most Indians can speak English.
And sidenote, guys: What we think of colonialism is another conversation – I care about that, but let’s just stick to the language for now 🙂
So by 1922 Great Britain was the largest empire the world had ever seen – the first global economic superpower, building steamships and railroads to improve global communications.
So here’s that question again: If previous lingua francas eventually died, even though they had spread far and wide, what made English different?
And it's about timing. Perfect timing made English different.
English walked centerstage at a time when three revolutionary things had happened: print, widespread literacy, and the media.
Therefore, unlike the fates of Aramaic and Latin, English grew WINGS! Nope – English was not dying, it was flying.
Because nothing has ever spread a language like the craving, and availability of information and entertainment.
This puts the new, unstoppable 20th century power of English in the hands of…well, YOU!
Books to read, radio to listen to, music like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Queen. These British bands ruled the airwaves and got into people’s hearts.
It’s not that there wasn’t anything good going on in other languages…
Because heaven knows there was…
It’s just that English was the common language around the world at a time that information and entertainment was spreading globally for the first time
Right place, right time.
But of course entertaining things aren’t just entertaining, they’re also perfect for learning languages…
Because they give you immersion in the language, with material you love. A bit like how I go on about learning with stories all the time.
Meanwhile In The US
What about the US?
There was crazy stuff happening there – right?
The hippy movement with music festivals like Woodstock and 1000s of English speaking hippies traveling to India – and yes, from the UK too.
But the iconic music alone spread understanding of English worldwide, because people had something to crave.
And this is something Latin never had.
Now, obviously English was already well-established in America by then. The US founders knew the importance of language for national identity, and English was the most widely-spoken one.
Also, lots had happened to enforce English education. In the early 1900s several states had even banned the teaching of foreign languages!
The US also had huge economic and political power by the first World War.
French had been the language of diplomacy, but when The Treaty of Versailles was written in both French and English – that was the start of English as a language of diplomacy.
Things kind of snowballed after that –after WW2 the US helped reconstruct Europe, which they liked, of course.
Pretty hard to stop the English language now, right?!
Okay. So you had the big guys using English for economic, political and military influence.
And you had millions of everyday folk getting high on entertainment – jazz, blues, pop, disco, hip hop…
Hollywood movies became global sensations and everybody was watching American television.
All in English.
And once again, it was great timing – the world had been ravaged by war, and American culture radiated confidence and success!
Good Lord. Was there anything else feeding the giant?
The Industrial Revolution
Oh, you betcha.. From the 1700s already, English was becoming the language of science and technology.
And you’d better believe that from the day money started making the world go round, people wanted that money-language!
And who were the most productive nations of the world? Britain and the US.
Next thing you knew, English was the language of air traffic control. And surprise, surprise, when the internet went public, it was 100% in English.
So there you go. The British empire spread English; America gave it cultural power, and the masses craved it.
Why English Is The Global Language
English is an international language of business and most multinational companies prefer candidates who speak it. That's probably why the best business programs in the world are taught in English.
And although there are phenomenal scientists in many countries, scientific journals are published in English.
It’s taught in schools in more countries than you can count – even to a desperate level, with inadequate teachers and materials – they still try!
And the world taps into English every time they go online – even as a second language, people are having a go.
English is also the official language of the world’s most important institutions: United Nations, NATO, European Union, the Commonwealth of Nations.
And British and American music STILL rule the airwaves!
Will it change someday?
Will English be bumped down the ladder by one of the other big ones: Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi-Urdu, Arabic?
I’ll tell you what I think in just a moment.
But what really happens in the future will depend on the direction society goes. And that’s unpredictable.
The masses won’t just learn a language because it seems sensible. They need something to crave.
Have you found something to crave in the language you're learning? Stories hopefully!
What Is The Lingua Franca Of The Future?
So after all of this, which language is likely to be the next supergiant?
Not really. Remember how English became a sensation? Well, say hello to China’s weak point: no internet and social media freedom. Yep, it’s hard to influence the world when you exist in a bubble.
So, as big and powerful as China may become, as long as it maintains its Great Firewall, blocking access to sites like YouTube within China, it’s hard to see how there can be enough back and forth around the world for the Chinese language to have the cultural currency it would NEED to do what English has done
Not to mention the very real hurdle of the written language, which, let's face it, ain’t the easiest for ANYONE!
There’s one language that’s doing a better job of growing organically, and that’s… French!
In French-speaking Africa, populations are growing faster than anywhere else on Earth!
But here’s a wild thought to ponder:
Some experts say that if China one day rules the world, the won't necessarily do it in Mandarin!