Why did English become the ‘global language’?

Kieran McGovern
Mar 19, 2019 · 3 min read

More people speak Spanish than English as their first language. Nearly three three times as many speak Mandarin Chinese in their family homes. Yet few would dispute that English is the leading world language.

The key factor in this preeminence is in the role of English as a lingua franca or common second language, as this table shows.

English is the most popular second language (L2)

English is the international language of business, commerce, science, medicine,and many other key areas. Even in diplomacy, where French once ruled supreme, English is now dominant in most regions of the world.

According to David Graddol’s extensive survey for the British Council, the number of non-native or second language speakers of English now outnumbers those of primary or native speakers.

international tourism is growing, but the proportion of encounters involving a native English speaker is declining (1.9). There were around 763 million international travellers in 2004, but nearly 75% of visits involved visitors from a non-English-speaking country travelling to a non-English-speaking destination. This demonstrates the … growing role for global English.

Increasingly, non native speakers use English as a

“practical tool” and also as a “working language” (Crystal 2003: 426), has emerged as a lingua franca used by millions of people to engage in a conversation with each other. (Tünde NAGY, 2016)

Why English?

English “global language because of the power of the people who speak it”

The renowned linguist, David Crystal, suggests that “a language becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it.” The ‘power’ of English was initially based on political and military factors, most notably the expansion of the British Empire. Later the role of English as the language of the scientific, industrial, financial and economic revolutions further increased its influence.

Crystal stresses that the increasing importance of English is not because of the structure of the language itself. English, he points out, is not particularly accessible to speakers of other languages. It has eccentric spelling and pronunciation patterns — cough, for example.

It also has the largest lexicon (number of words)of any European language. The Oxford English Dictionary runs to 23 volumes and 615,000 words. The equivalent German dictionary contains 180,000.


Other linguists feel that Crystal undervalues the special nature of the English language. Robert McCrum argues that English “does a good job” in allowing non-native speakers to adapt to it. In an interview with the Boston Globe McCrum focuses on its ‘democratic’ nature:

Q. You make a distinction in the book between the imperial roots of English internationally, but the language not being imperious.

A. The French have always been very imperious. Whenever they have a cultural decision to make it’s always top down. With English, it’s always bottom up. I’m saying implicitly that there’s a quality to the English language which is different from German or French or Chinese. That quality is approachability, usefulness, adaptability.

English is a Germanic language in its grammar, syntax and key vocabulary. Though only 30% of English words are Anglo Saxon, they make up around 70% of those used in common conversation. The top ten most commonly used verbs — be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get — are all survivors from old English.

What makes the English language flexible, however, is that its lexicon (vocabulary)borrows heavily from other languages — particularly Latin, Greek and French. These ‘loanwords’ are either integrated through usage or disappear into obscurity.

Bottom up

There is no Académie française for English, no august council determining what is or is not permissible. The only ‘official’ status for a specific word is inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary and the OED sees its task as

recording the entry of today’s new words into the language. We use printed evidence of new words from magazines, newspapers, books, song lyrics, practical manuals — indeed from any published source. Slang and dialect words are also collected.

This is what McCrum calls the ‘bottom up’ nature of English. It leads to many quirks — we say the city Paris with a hard s but switch to French pronunciation when referring to the football team Paris Saint Germain.

The English Language: FAQ

The vocabulary, grammar & history of English

Kieran McGovern

Written by

I grew up in an Irish family in west London

The English Language: FAQ

The vocabulary, grammar & history of English

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade