The role of English as a world language

Term Paper, 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The current status of English
2.1. Facts and numbers- English as a global language
2.2. The three circle model

3. Reasons for the status of English
3.1. History
3.1.1. The United States
3.1.2. Australia
3.2. The exploitation and grassroots theory
3.3. The language itself

4. Blessing or curse
4.1. Positive effects
4.2. Negative effects
4.2.1. Power relations
4.2.2. Language complacency
4.2.3. Language death

5. The future of English

6. Conclusion


There has never been a language so widely spread or spoken by so many people as English. (David Crystal)

1. Introduction

For me, learning English has always been quite easy. Though I grew up as a monolingual person and my first contact with English was not until the fifth grade, I have been surrounded by this language constantly. When I first started to translate my favorite pop songs into German I became more and more familiar with English. As the following paragraphs show this is exactly one of the reasons that people are so familiar with it nowadays, and that made me think about this language a little bit more intensive: English is everywhere, even in an official monolingual country like Germany. Though it helps us to get a better understanding for many terms in the world, there is also a negative side. I think that a conversation held in German should not contain more English words than necessary or even “poison” it. Though the influence of the English language on German is undeniable it should never dominate the other language.

This term paper deals with the status of English as a global language. It shows how far English is spread nowadays and also tries to find answers to the question why English of all the many languages in the world is so influential? Therefore, historical, grammatical and other reasons are investigated. Afterwards, the paper presents the two sides of the English status, namely advantages that come with it but also the negative effects that occur. Finally, there is a look at the future of the English language in order to find out if the influence will increase even more or be replaced by a different language. Many linguists have studied this field and see English especially in relation to language death. This paper shows that the topic is very complex and that it cannot be committed to either positive or negative.

2. The current status of English

2.1. Facts and numbers-English as a global language

According to the the English language is the third largest in the world after Chinese and Spanish. It is spoken in 112 countries by 328 million speakers. The special phenomenon is that English is spoken all over the world and is not only restricted to one area, as is Chinese. Edward Finegan summarizes this by saying that “ [t]hough Chinese is spoken by a greater number of people, English is spoken around the globe and has wider dispersion than any other language” ( Finegan 1989: 77). From its homeland, the United Kingdom, it has spread to other countries and continents like America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa and became the lingua franca in many countries (cf. Finegan 1989:77f). English functions as the sole official language in countries like Ghana, the Bahamas or Jamaica but it is also established as an official language along with other languages in countries like Tanzania, Singapore and Pakistan (cf. Finegan 1989:78). Even where English is not officially established it is used and taken for granted, as it is in the United States (cf. Finegan 1989:77f).

One thing that all linguists and researchers of languages are sure of is the role that English plays nowadays. Anderman and Rogers point out that it has developed into a lingua franca ( Anderman & Rogers 2005:1) which gives people the opportunity to communicate more easily and overcome borders ( Anderman & Rogers 2005:180). Joshua A. Fishman sees “ [ . . . ] the expansive reach of English [as] undeniable and [ . . . ] unstoppable” ( Fishman 2000:1) and Hans Sauer even defines it as “the most important language in the world” ( Saur 2006:187). David Crystal proves that English is a global language by giving a short definition of the term: “A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country” ( Crystal 1997:2). That means, the language is not only mother tongue in many countries but is also present in other areas where it is either the official language or the language which is mostly taught to children, though it has no official status (cf. Crystal 1997:3). The fact that English has gone through this “three-pronged development - of first-language, official-language, and foreign-language speakers” ( Crystal 1997:4) gives it the status of a global language.

Nowadays it seems almost impossible to escape the influence of the English language: “ [. . . ] [T]he majority of the world's population are [ . . . ] exposed to English every day- via American brand names, ads and commercials, through subtitled anglophone TV, film and DVD productions [ . . . ], lyrics and titles of all kinds” ( Gottlieb 2005:162). David Crystal even sees English as the most influential language ever when it comes to international relations (cf. Crystal 2000:70).

2.2. The three circle model

As can be seen before, using English is not the same in every country. Some people do it because they were raised with it as their mother tongue ( as in the USA, Canada, Britain etc), others use it as an addition to their mother tongue because English gives them access to important domains such as government, laws, the media and educational system in their countries ( as in Ghana, Singapore or India etc). The third group learns English as the major foreign language at school which happens in countries like China, Germany, Russia or Spain (cf. Crystal 1997:2ff).

To summarize all three groups and give them a structure, the linguist Braj Kachru united them in his three circle model. It consists of the inner, outer or extended and the expanding circle ( see fig. 1).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(fig. 1: the three circle model)

The inner circle includes countries in which English is the mother tongue, like USA or Great Britain, with about 320 to 380 million speakers. Countries which belong to the outer circle use English as a second language in addition to their mother tongue, which are about 150 to 300 million speakers and the expanding circle consists of those countries which teach English as the first foreign language but it has no official status. This is the case for about 100 to 1,000 million speakers around the globe ( cf. Crystal 1997: 53f).

An other way to organize the groups of English speaking people is the model introduced by Phillipson. He distinguishes between two types of countries, namely the 'core English-speaking countries' and the 'periphery English' countries. The former group can be compared to Kachru's Inner Circle where “[ . . . ] the dominant group are native speakers”. The latter is an equivalent to the Outer and Expanding Circles (cf. Anderman & Rogers 2005:12).

3. Reasons for the status of English

3.1. History

David Crystal states that the power of the English language is closely related to the history and development of the British Empire (cf. Crystal 1997:53). This thesis is supported by other linguists such as Henrik Gottlieb who says that “ [ . . . ] ever since the infancy of the former British Empire [ . . . ] English has been in a no-lose situation” ( Gottlieb 2005:161). Salikoko Mufwene explains how a language like English is put through in other countries, as follows: Due to colonization the British Empire took over other countries and introduced English as the new official language. To avoid negative consequences the native peoples had to arrange with it and adopt the new language as well. Over the years the native languages have become extinct or remained only as a left over of old times (cf. Mufwene 2000:1). During the 15th and 16th century Britain became very successful in developing new colonies and soon its influence, and consequently its language, reached up to America, the Caribbean, Africa and finally India (cf. Nettle & Romaine 2002:114). In history, this was the time “[ . . . ] in der das Englische in einem Klima pol. und wirtschaftl. Umbruchs weitere Verbreitung fand” 'when the English language spread widely in a climate of political and economical changes' ( Viereck et. al. 2002:151). Despite its relatively secure position nowadays, English has not always been such an influential language. Especially before the colonial period “ [war] die heutige Vormachtstellung des Englischen in der Welt [ . . . ] nicht absehbar” 'the supremacy that English has around the world today was not foreseeable' ( Viereck et. al. 2002:151).

When English was brought to Britain in the 5th century it soon took over many parts like Wales and Cornwall and started to supersede Celtic languages (cf. Crystal 1997:25). However, during the Norman Conquest in 1066 the French language was brought to the island and established itself in many official domains (cf. Finegan 1989:84). The countries were separated: while “ [t]he upper class spoke only French, [ . . . ] English remained chiefly on peasant tongues” (Finegan 1989:84). Nevertheless, due to the fact that many noblemen had to escape to Scotland they took their English with them. When the plague spread over Britain in 1348 the lower classes became more powerful and were appreciated and with them their language reached a higher status in society (cf. Finegan 1989:84). During the next years the language was known by more and more people and by the end of the 14th century “ [ . . . ] English again became the language of England and of her literature” (Finegan 1989:84).

It took some centuries before English, for example, replaced Latin and French as the language of court proceedings, official correspondence, educational and scientific treaties. ( . . .) [It] was not until 1700, however, that the tradition of writing academic texts in Latin finally died out. By comparison with classical Latin, English was still in many respects stylistically limited because it was not used across the broad range of contexts that Latin served. Furthermore, its use was confined to England and therefore its utility as the lingua franca of science and technology it was to claim in later centuries was at that stage doubtful. ( Nettle & Romaine 2002:30)

This makes clear that the rise of the English language has not begun until the rise of the British Empire because “ without a strong power-base [ . . . ] no language can make progress as an international medium of communication” ( Crystal 1997:5).

In the following, there will be a deeper look at the history of English in America, especially in the United States, because the British colonizers built up their first permanent settlement there and took their language to a new continent. Afterwards, the spread of English in Australia is briefly shown.

3.1.1. The United States

In connection with the topic “spread of English language” it seems most interesting to see how the language took over a whole new continent. Therefore, it is necessary to remark that America was not uninhabited when the British settlers arrived. As it is well known, many indigenous peoples lived there and had, of course, their own languages. Many of them did not give up their languages voluntarily. As Nettle and Romaine describe, the contact between settlers and native peoples was full of conflicts: while in the beginning of the settlement the colonists saw the natives as trade partners this relationship switched during the following years (cf. Nettle & Romaine 2002:118). The tribes were made slaves and had to work for the settlers under the permanent pressure of giving up their ways of lives and adopt new crops, money and language (cf. Nettle & Romaine 2002:118). At the same time they learned new (English) words (cf. Cassidy 1982:179). Nevertheless, not all of the people who came to America were English. It was a mixture of Spanish, German, Dutch or Irish groups who all brought their languages with them. Still, the English language could get its way because many speakers adopted it through assimilation (cf. Crystal 1997:31). Possible reasons for this development could have been that most of the colonists were English-speaking and this made other groups adopt the language in order to be able to communicate with the majority. In contrast to that it could have been the case that powerful people in these communities were English-speaking and therefore installed their language to be the official one (cf. Cassidy 1982:179). Though English was the language which spread mostly, the other speech communities left their influences on it as well: The slaves imported from Africa, for example, learned English, but due to their separation from the common society they were never able to learn it properly. Consequently, the so called “Black English” developed which is still present today (cf. Cassidy 1982:182). Summarized this means:

For all speakers of languages other than English, then, assimilation was a matter ( as with the Africans) of what kind of English they were in a position to adopt-what class of people they associated with; whether their life was rural or urban; whether they came with property or with nothing ( Cassidy 1982:182).


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The role of English as a world language
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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Kristina Eichhorst (Author), 2010, The role of English as a world language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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