I have been teaching ESL for 30 years now, yet it never ceases to amaze me how English is continually being adopted across the globe. Today it’s considered the lingua franca (an ironic turn of phrase, non?) in business, medicine, academia, transportation, higher education and, of course, all things Internet.
In fact, there is no other language in the history of mankind that has been as widely spoken as English. There are currently 400 million native English speakers who are outnumbered by the billion more who speak it as their second language.
How did the language of such a small country come to dominate world affairs? Historically speaking, a language’s influence stems from political and economic power—mainly conquest and trade. That’s why Latin dominated during the Roman Empire; Portuguese, Dutch and French later jockeyed for position, but it was the British who ultimately prevailed, leaving their mark on politics, legal systems, and higher education.
You can’t mention Britain without mentioning its offshoot, America. Since WWII, English’s influence has skyrocketed due to America’s economic and cultural dominance. Think: Hollywood, the music industry, computing, technology and more recently, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Mircrosoft, Apple, and Netflix, all seemingly integral to modern-day life.
As English’s influence grows, I have seen different waves of learners enter the arena. In the 1990s, my students were European or Japanese; mostly polyglots who enjoyed acquiring new languages or liked to travel. Around 2000, Koreans and Swiss joined the mix, seeing English as a ticket to better jobs or education; and now in 2020, waves of Russian, Eastern European, Chinese and East Asians are learning English, most aspiring business students who hope to up their chances in the global market.
To give you an idea of growth, the first school I worked at was a British language school with 50 students; that same company now serves 60,000 students worldwide!
A last word: I see English as a rich, flexible language that offers a broad vocabulary and I particularly like how it ignores the social hierarchy (of you formal vs you familiar) inherit in other languages. I am happy so many people want to learn it for I can travel widely, knowing I can communicate wherever I land, and it has led to a fruitful career.
However, I don’t think English is or ever should be more relevant than other languages for we need diverse languages to express the complexities of human life. All languages are beautiful, uniquely expressing the truth of our existence.