In part 3 of this blog series, I explained how English has become the lingua franca (a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue) of world transport. I questioned why it is English that has taken on this role, as it wasn’t always so, and considered just how many English speakers there are worldwide. These numbers are increasing every year, and not only because of the demand on transport and tourism.
Part 4: English – the language of the Internet
One of the main reasons for the increase in English over the last decade or so, is the Internet. Used by almost 2.5 billion people worldwide, the Internet is a database filled with thousands of different languages and information, and a lot of it is in English. Although 44.8% of computer users in the world are located in Asia (internetworldstats.com), 56.1% of webpages are in fact in English (w3techs.com). Which may not sound like a lot, only just over half of all content on the Internet, but the next highest percentages are German and Russian with 5.9% each – so quite significantly lower. Internet content in Japanese amounts to 5%, Chinese 3.2% and Korean 0.4%, so the large amount of computer users in those countries doesn’t necessarily match this.
In an article on the BBC news website, from 2001, Oxford University Professor Jean Aitchison, talks about how English wasn’t always the dominant world language – “‘At one time French was the language of power and prestige,’ she says, ‘and Latin was also widely admired as fixed and firm.’ The rise of English, she says, is ‘all about the power of the people who speak it’ – first as the language of the British Empire and now, in a slightly different form, of American corporations, advertising and pop culture.” (news.bbc.co.uk) Although this article is over ten years old, advertising and pop culture is very much still a big influence on the reach of English globally, even more so than in 2001. But as the dominant world language has changed over time, does this also mean that it won’t always be English? It doesn’t look like it will be changing to another language any time soon.
But English as a language itself is changing. “It is estimated that more than half the world population will be ‘competent’ in English by the year 2050. But it is likely that this new form of ‘World Speak’ English will be very different to the language we understand now.” (news.bbc.co.uk) Today, there are three kinds of English; Standard American/British English, oral and vernacular English – a mixture of English with the local language such as Chinglish, a combination of Chinese and English, and International Colloquial English.
We could call this third kind Internet English. “a rapidly mutating ‘world’ language […] borrowing large numbers of words from other languages as well as text messaging-style abbreviations and even symbols.” (news.bbc.co.uk) David Crystal has been writing about language for several decades, and more recently, he has explored Internet language. “Crystal says the Internet represents the biggest change in communication in the whole of human history. Changes underway, he says, ‘are immensely bigger’ than those which followed the invention of the printing press.” (news.bbc.co.uk)
In his book, English as a Global Language, David Crystal explores the potential future for English as the international language of communication. He asks several main questions, including what makes a world language? And why is English the leading candidate? “A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognised in every country.” – David Crystal (from, the book, English as a Global Language). In the case of English, which is spoken in USA, Canada, UK and Australia (among other countries) as a native first language, is also greatly recognised as a second language for many of the world’s countries. English is also the language most widely taught in schools as a foreign language, in over 100 countries including China, Germany and Russia.
Crystal states that what makes a language global is less about how many speakers the language has worldwide but more about who they are. “Latin became an international language throughout the Roman Empire, […] they were simply more powerful.” We are living in an age of travel, tourism, trade and globalisation where communication between different countries is necessary.
There are two main reasons why it is English that has been adopted as the world’s global language. Firstly, there is the geographical and historical dominance that the British Empire held over the Americas, Asia and Africa over several hundred years. The second reason is that people the world over have become dependent on English in their lives. “The language has penetrated deeply into the international domains of political life, business, safety, communication, entertainment, the media and education.” The computer and Internet industry has become particularly dependent on English. This brings us to question if any other language would ever be able to compete with English for a place as a, or the, global language. What do you think?
Look out for part 5, the concluding part to this blog series, next week.