The Spread of English in the World

Variation and Linguistic Imperialism

Essay, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: Distinction



The status of English in the world has changed drastically in the last half-century or so, as innovations in communication technologies, especially the rise of the internet and improvements in transportation have increased international travel and cultural exchange. Not only do more people in more countries speak English than ever before, the language also plays an important role in ever more cultural contexts across the world, such as trade, sports, academics and science (Rubdy and Saraceni, 2006).

It has been labelled a “global language” (Graddol, 2006: 58), an “international language” (Rubdy and Saraceni, 2006: 8) and can be seen as the current most prevalent lingua franca in the world (Hülmbauer, Böhringer and Seidlhofer, 2008). Naturally, the massive increase of English speakers around the world who speak it at all different levels of proficiency, for any variety of purposes and with people who, more likely than not, do not have English as their first language either, has sparked some concerns and controversies.

Some are concerned that its wide spread and the emergence and institutionalisation of new ‘Englishes’ will lead to a language fragmentation that could ultimately result in mutual unintelligibility (Rubdy and Saraceni, 2006). Furthermore, as the majority of interactions in English happens without a single native-speaker being present, and English is now shaped as much by non-native speakers as by native speakers, native speakers are no longer regarded as the sole custodians over the language (Seidlhofer, 2005). The question of who holds authority over English today is therefore causing heated discussions.

Teaching practices for English as a foreign language are yet another contentious subject. For the most part, English teaching is still oriented towards British or North American varieties, and a learner’s proficiency is measured in relation to those norms (Jenkins, 2009). Some, however, demand that English teaching practices take into account that usage situations and requirements for English have changed, and that teachers prepare students for international communication rather than communication with Americans or British (Seidlhofer, 2003; Prodromou, 2006).

The issue with perhaps the greatest political significance is that of linguistic imperialism. As English, particularly the ‘prestige varieties’ British and American, are being taught to more and more people across the world, some have voiced their concern that this “compromises the cultural integrity of the non-native speaker” (Modiano, 2001: 339). There is a fear that English might suppress or even replace local languages and be used as a tool to spread Anglo-American cultural hegemony (ibid.).

In the following, I will first give a rough overview over who speaks English in the world today. Secondly, I will briefly discuss some of the attempts by scholars to categorise this immense number of different people, focusing particularly on Kachru’s model of the spread of English. I will then address some of the factors that lead to the emergence of new varieties of English, describing Nigerian English and China English in more detail by way of an example. Subsequently, I will discuss linguistic imperialism as one particularly controversial issue relating to the rise of English to one of the world’s most predominant languages.

Who speaks English?

For the purpose of discussing the current spread and status of English around the world, its speakers can be grouped into three categories, although this classification is by no means clear or undisputed. Approximately 350 million grew up in a country where English is historically the first language, such as Great Britain, the USA, Australia, etc. and are therefore considered native speakers. About the same number of people speak English as a Second Language, namely in those territories that were once colonised by the English, such as India, Singapore or Hongkong, where it serves country-internal purposes alongside one or more local languages.

The third group consists of those that learned English as a foreign language and for whom it serves no purpose in their own countries. Due to the global status of the language today, it is safe to say that there is no country in the world where there are not a least some people studying English in addition to their native language(s). It is difficult to assess the size of this group, as it depends on what minimum level of proficiency one considers necessary to count someone as a speaker of English, and on whether or not one wants to include creole and pidgin forms of English in the calculation. However, it is clear that speakers of English as a foreign language today vastly outnumber native and Second Language speakers (Jenkins, 2009).

During the last century, the ‘power balance’ between non-native speakers and native speakers of English has shifted; children all across the globe start to learn English in school earlier and earlier and more and more adults see it as a necessity for their professional careers. English is now so wide-spread that it is considered a basic skill in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, where it is comparable to the significance of literacy during the time of industrialisation (Seidlhofer, Breiteneder and Pitzl, 2006).

Kachru and the spread of English around the world

Scholars have made a number of attempts to develop a model of the global spread of English that does justice to the complexity of today’s language situation, trying to capture its geographical and functional dispersion. Braj Kachru’s “Three circle model of World Englishes” (Kachru, 1985, 1988) has become the most influential, his subdivision of English into three ‘circles’ being used most often as the theoretical base for academic discussions on the implications of the global rise of English.


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The Spread of English in the World
Variation and Linguistic Imperialism
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This was written the course assignment for a postgraduate sociolinguistics class.
English, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, English in the World, Linguistic variations, linguistic imperialism, world languages, world english, global language, international language, language spread
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Eva-Maria Kaufmann (Author), 2011, The Spread of English in the World, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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