Parlez-vous anglais? Why English has taken over from French as the world’s lingua franca

In our last blog, we touched on the spread of English and the fact that it has become the most widely used language in the world and the international language of business. This may not seem surprising when we consider the strength of the British Empire by the 20th century and the rise of the United States as one of the word’s superpowers. However, the adoption of English as the word’s lingua franca was not a foregone conclusion and actually only a relatively recent phenomenon.

Even if we look at numbers of native speakers, English is not top dog. Chinese (Mandarin) is by far the top language if we look at the number of people who natively speak that language. Estimates vary but it is something in the region of 1 billion speakers, around 15% of the world’s population. Next comes Spanish with around 400 million native speakers. English sits in third place with approximately 360 million. However, when taking into account those who speak a second or third language, we see a very different picture and English claims to have around 750 million who actually speak it to a competent level. Although this is still a lower figure than the number of Mandarin speakers, the influence of English on a global scale is much bigger. Influence takes into account much more than the number of speakers, but also includes the economic power of the countries where it is an official language, the number of countries in which the language is important and the socio-literary prestige of the language. When all these factors are taken into consideration, the influence of English puts it firmly in the position of the first truly global lingua franca.

A lingua franca is a language used to enable effective communication between communities with different first languages. This has always been important throughout history: without “trading languages”, civilization would not have been able to progress in the way it has done. Back in the time of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin—as opposed to classical Latin—was the spoken language of the people and used for communication between peoples across the empire. In Western Asia, various lingua francas have ruled, including Akkadian, Aramaic and more recently Arabic. Lingua Franca—from where the term originates—was actually a language spoken around the Mediterranean during the Renaissance. It was mainly based on Italian, but included words from Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Old French. Translated as “Frankish language”, it was used for business and diplomacy at a time when the region was buzzing with ships and trade. All these languages really have been the building blocks of modern civilization.

French derives from Vulgar Latin (as do Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and all Romance languages) and experienced a significant spread between the 17th and 20th centuries as the French explored and conquered. Of course, it wasn’t just the French who were busy exploring, which is why we find Dutch spoken in Suriname, Portuguese in Angola and Spanish in Chile. However, French became a very influential language and was synonymous with education and a high social status between the 17th and 20th century. It was adopted as the international language of business and diplomacy in those centuries and is still considered by many as the rightful holder of this title.

However, fashions change and English has taken over from French as the most influential language in the world, and the international language of diplomacy and business. This has really only happened in the 20th century, however. Whereas French was once seen as a language that people wanted to speak because of its prestige, English is now the language that people feel they have to speak in order to flourish in an increasingly globalized world. There are many reasons for its rise in popularity, including its use in science, technology, literature, sports, films and TV. The United States is not only hugely influential in terms of Hollywood and world politics, it is also home to some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations, who take their “native” language with them as they penetrate into different markets around the world. But perhaps one of the biggest reasons it is continuing to grow in influence at an astonishing rate is the importance of the Internet in everyday life. With companies like Google and Facebook taking the world by storm, particularly in North America and Europe, it is easy to see how English is popularized.

It is important to point out that there is no innate superiority to the English language whatsoever, it has become popular merely for historical and economic reasons. It is also worth remembering that Latin was once the most dominant language in the world, and we all know what happened to that language. So, the global language situation in the early 21st century is really just a snapshot of a moment in time. Another hundred years and we may all feel that Spanish or Mandarin are essential for communicating on a global scale. Unless we’re all communicating telepathically by then, but that is for another blog…

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