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Notes on English as a Global Language

Global English, World English, and the Rise of English as a Lingua Franca

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Notes on English as a Global Language

English as a Global Language, 2nd ed., by David Crystal (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

In Shakespeare's time, the number of English speakers in the world is thought to have been between five and seven million. According to linguist David Crystal, "Between the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1603) and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II (1952), this figure increased almost fiftyfold, to around 250 million" (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2003). In this edition of Language Notes, we turn our attention to Global English, World English, and the rise of the English language as a lingua franca.

  • How many languages are there?
    "Today there are about 6,000 languages in the world, and half of the world's population speaks only 10 of them. English is the single most dominant of these 10. British colonialism initiated the spread of English across the globe; it has been spoken nearly everywhere and has become even more prevalent since World War II, with the global reach of American power."
    (Christine Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Viking, 2007)


  • From how many other languages has English borrowed words?
    "English has borrowed words from over 350 other languages, and over three-quarters of the English lexicon is actually Classical or Romance in origin. Plainly, the view that to borrow words leads to a language's decline is absurd, given that English has borrowed more words than most."
    (David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003)


  • How many people in the world today speak English?
    First-language speakers: 375 million
    Second-language speakers: 375 million
    Foreign-language speakers: 750 million
    (David Graddol, The Future of English? A Guide to Forecasting the Popularity of the English Language in the 21st Century. British Council, 1997)


  • In how many countries is English taught as a foreign language?
    "English is now the language most widely taught as a foreign language--in over 100 countries, such as China, Russia, Germany, Spain, Egypt, and Brazil--and in most of these countries it is emerging as the chief foreign language to be encountered in schools, often displacing another language in the process."
    (David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003)


  • What is the most widely used English word?
    "The form OK or okay is probably the most intensively and widely used (and borrowed) word in the history of the language. Its many would-be etymologists have traced it variously to Cockney, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Norwegian, Scots, several African languages, and the Native American language Choctaw, as well as a number of personal names. All are imaginative feats without documentary support."
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford University Press, 2002)


  • How many countries in the world have English as their first language?
    "This is a complicated question, as the definition of 'first language' differs from place to place, according to each country’s history and local circumstances. The following facts illustrate the complexities:

    "Australia, Botswana, the Commonwealth Caribbean nations, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Ireland, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have English as either a de facto or statutory official language. In Cameroon and Canada, English shares this status with French; and in the Nigerian states, English and the main local language are official. In Fiji, English is the official language with Fijian; in Lesotho with Sesotho; in Pakistan with Urdu; in the Philippines with Filipino; and in Swaziland with Siswati. In India, English is an associate official language (after Hindi), and in Singapore English is one of four statutory official languages. In South Africa, English [is] the main national language—but just one of eleven official languages.

    "In all, English has official or special status in at least 75 countries (with a combined population of two billion people). It is estimated that one out of four people worldwide speak English with some degree of competence."
    (Penny Silva, "Global English." AskOxford.com, 2009)

To learn more about English as a global language, visit our glossary entries for these varieties of English:

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