How did English become the Global Language?

One of the things I did today was comment on Scott Thornbury's blog post, O is for Ownership... and in my ramblings I talked about how sometimes ideas are out there, floating about in the greater Universe, simply lurking, waiting to be captured by he who listens and is prepared to act.  (It's that sort of day).

Those sorts of thoughts come, I guess though, from my youth when I was a NewAger and instead of being a reflective English teacher and practitioner or even a student,  I wrote NewAge articles philosophizing on the questions of one's path through life - instead of

"How do we learn?" "What is motivation?"
"How can the new technologies help us teach Speaking?' I wondered how we transformed from monkeys to... well, whatever we are now.

Even though it was a long, long, long, long time ago and many years have passed since those days of adventure, climbing up into volcanoes and knocking back beers while lying on Asian sandy beaches, curled up around men with long wise beards in front of dimming fires while arguing over the very nature of our beingness, the story, no matter how fantastical, of the 100th Monkey never really left me.

So today, through the rambling stroll of a streaming mind, the philosophy that we learn from those around us, consciously, subconsciously and through the trawling of multi-dimensional layered communications recorded in the shared higher consciousness, I am led to only this question:

How did English become today's one Global Language?

Okay, it's not completely, yet it surely is on the way.  By 2020, a prediction not a fact, a greater majority will speak it than those who don't, right?  It isn't the easiest language.  Nor the prettiest.  It is instead a messy code, made up of archaic irregularities, tortuous, nonsensical rules and ridiculous tongue-defying pronunciations.

So what on earth, or beyond earth, happened to set this particular meme into play?

When did the Tipping Point occur?

Who were the players, who washed the first sweet potato, who made washing it important? Who decided that English should take the place of Esperanto?  Was it life itself?  Was it a bunch of academics studying applied linguistics unraveling the codices of the brain and because they happened to be English speaking, while sharing the nature of our brains ability to learn, the onus was on English to prove the hypotheses... or was it the availability of native English speakers racing across a globe to have an adventure while earning a little cash?

Was it a curtain coming down or a wall falling down?  Was it the Almighty Dollar or Nike's abuse of children in factories? Was it Coca-cola's fault or a legion of British soldiers conquering a New World?

How did it all happen so fast?

We talk about our students' needs to learn English but somehow we don't ask how that need arose in the first place.

Does anyone have thoughts or theories?

image credit: colobus monkey by garthimage

17 Responses to “How did English become the Global Language?”

  • CristinaC says:
    October 30, 2011

    I can't really answer to the "how it happened" question, but I can somehow tell you why is needed in my country.
    After the communism, we have happily embraced the New World, the Coca-Cola, the western movies, the jeans became the avant-garde of our dreams and lives, I grew up watching Cartoon Network (I can't imagine Scooby talking my natal language). English was not a language, it was, just like you mentioned, "the code" of universality and most of all, the SOUND OF FREEDOM. More and more people wanted to escape those tragic memories and somehow they chose English as a refuge from that repulsive state of mind, imprisonement. And the success of English in my country is not social, but mental...I know people (I am an example also) that think their daily thoughts in English,not because our language doesn't have the necessary meanings or harmony; it's just the powerful seduction of the promise land, the freedom so many Romanian writers died for and the compromise some chose to go for just to be able to tell the story, our story.Imagine a world where little nations dream in their own language, but talk the other one, the one that establishes their existence among people.
    It's the struggle of survival in the 21th Century and English is the swinging bridge we all want to cross for the better side of life.

  • Sandy Millin says:
    October 30, 2011

    I studied the history of French at uni. At one time it was the lingua franca of the educated, as was Spanish to some degree. As far as I remember, English became an important language at around the end of theFirst World War. I think the Treaty of Versailles (hoping that's the 1918 one!) was one of last international treaties to only appear in French, or maybe the first to be in French and English. Can't remember exactly why, but I remember it was important somehow!
    The other reason English became so international was the Empire. Latin was the lingua franca because of it's Empire, then as the spread of French culture and literature increased, so did the use of the language. Now it's the turn of English, and it's quite likely that in turn another language will take it's place in the future. Perhaps Mandarin?
    Not so philosophical, but fascinating nonetheless!

    October 30, 2011

    Hi Cristina,

    Thank you so much for your beautiful comment sharing your life experience: it answers so much, language as a bridge to freedom is about a passionate a motivation as any I can possibly think of. wow!

    October 30, 2011

    Hi Sandy,

    My father speaks French although he grew up in the Caribbean and I can definitely confirm that in his mind, French was the language of culture... and to be seen as cultured was the "meme" of his generation.

    I think English has a stickiness, though, beyond culture and money, it's almost as if it has a life of its own, there is something innately powerful in the fact that the majority of people in the world will soon speak it.

    But post English, I'm reckoning on Arabic. It might be Mandarin, indeed, but I think the Chinese already had their time of Empire... who knows - the world and its swinging pendulum, whatever it is, it'll be the language of the people who invent the next "big thing that changes the world."

    I wonder if this will be in our time? Or in further generations?

  • Anonymous says:
    October 31, 2011

    A language can become global based on the advancement in certain elements ; such as science, technology , culture, military,etc . If a nation acquires supremacy in these ,there is a tendency for them to export their culture and technology through the medium of their language. The American English is popular and widely used now because they are advanced these elements .In the middle ages when Muslims where advanced in science and technology; Arabic was the dominant language of learning .Greek and Latin languages have had their turns . I wonder which language will gain dominance after English?

    October 31, 2011

    Hi Saeed,

    Nice to see you back! Yes, that's true - I wonder if the rise and power of languages is really all about use. I remember that we got our prepositions in English from the remaining Viking tribes who'd stayed to trade after they were defeated...

    Commerce definitely plays a role.

    Sometimes I entertain myself by working out what the next "big" thing is and where that will come from - at the moment it's eco-energy, and great strides being made in Germany - maybe we'll all speak German soon, I should have worked harder at mastering it when I was there!


  • Divergent Learner says:
    November 04, 2011

    I almost felt like Elizabeth Gilbert was being channeled & speaking through your body when I first started to read this post, he he. Too bad you didn't beat her to Eat, Love, Pray! Nice blog, thanks!

    November 04, 2011

    LOL... Elizabeth Gilbert, ha,ha... I wonder what age group she falls into, it was the zeitgeist, I guess -

  • Tools For English says:
    November 18, 2011

    Thanks, I like this post it is very good and informative. I am sure that this post will be very helpful..

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  • issa says:
    January 21, 2012

    English is the language of the US, whose gross domestic product in 1980 was more than double that of its nearest competitor, Japan. I seems that English is the language of the most influential, powerful and productive nations.

    Just an opinion. :)

  • Star Tefl says:
    August 02, 2012

    Fascinating story. English is the universal language. I come from Poland. English saved me during my visit to China for example.

  • Craig Howling says:
    August 02, 2012

    Fascinating story and a great read

  • Polish translator says:
    January 13, 2013

    As an answer to your question let me cite my Scottish professor, who while describing differences between a language and a dialect said: "A language has its own army, navy and air force. Simple but true. That's why, today, we study English, instead of e.g. Polish

    January 13, 2013

    Love it, so true!

  • Unknown says:
    January 31, 2013

    The question of what makes a global language has been an interesting topic in the discussion of English globalisation. While it is generally accepted that English became the global language because of the power of its speakers, there is a widespread debate around which power was more important in the making of English globalisation: British colonialism or American political economic power. In this regard, I maintain that while during the nineteenth century British colonial settlers had significantly imposed English on many parts of the world especially the countries that they have conquered, it was American superpower which had maintained this dominance of English and further promoted it as the global language during the twentieth century up to the present.
    In the contemporary historical literature, the supremacy of British people has been repeatedly mentioned in terms of their victorious expedition and invasion throughout the world in the nineteenth century. Famous slogans like “Britain rules the waves” and “the sun never sets on the British Empire” are some examples that illustrate their military strength as well as the vast areas that they explored and occupied. In this era of expansion, English was brought by the British army into the colonies and was forcefully established as the language of administration and trade. As a result, English developed from a language limitedly used in the British Isles into a lingua franca widely spoken in the territories ruled by the British (Leith, 1996)*.
    However, the superiority of the British Empire on the international stage did not last long. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was no longer the world’s leading political and industrial country, this position had been taken over by America. In the hands of this new powerful country, English continued to spread around the world and gradually became the most influential language in the world.
    Unlike the former British colonists who mainly expanded the use of English through their continental exploration and conquest, the spread of English during the American hegemony mostly took the form of macroacquisition. In the simplest terms, English did not spread because of the geographical movements of American speakers but because it was associated with a language of economic value, political power and social prestige, in this case American English. While it is true that macroacquisition had also happened during the British Industrial Revolution, it must be noted that the scale of British English macroacquisition at the time was only limited to some spheres of life, particularly in agriculture, manufacturing and transportation.
    In contrast, the American English macroacquisition during the twentieth century had encompassed almost all aspects of human modern life such as entertainment, communication, education, finance, mass media, health, food, etc. This massive macroacquisition, of course, did not happen at a time. Instead, it came as an accumulative result of American dominant involvements in various stages of the world’s political events including World War II, NATO and UNO, coupled with the successful introduction of America capitalism through its giant corporations such as McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Microsoft and Hollywood (Graddol, 2000)** .
    Given the facts, it is clear that despite the significant contributions of British colonialism towards the spread of English, it must be acknowledged that American superpower played a greater part in establishing English as the global language as it is today. In other words, the American superpower not only had helped sustain the position of English after the decline of the British Empire, it had also promoted English as the most widely spoken and learnt language in all areas of life across the globe.



    January 31, 2013

    Hi Ariatna,

    Thanks so much for your detailed and informative comment - and also apologies that it took so long to appear here, my blog is set to filter spam from comments. Am very pleased to have your very considered and helpful explanation.

  • Garth B. says:
    February 12, 2014


    Question for Ari Atna.
    And why were the Americans speaking English as a 'mother tongue' in the first place?



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