How the global spread of English has both benefited and harmed the language. Thesis Three


The phenomenal rise in use of English has mainly taken place over the last two decades. English has reached high status world-wide because of several factors; as the mother tongue of millions of people all over the world,  as the language that millions of children learn at school and the language that is used in international relations, for global communication and as the major media language. The importance of a global language has become major, in some contexts such as communication, e.g. international web-pages on the Internet, English is the only language used.  In addition, English is used to establish and maintain connection and relationship between people with different backgrounds from different cultures. This paper discusses the different aspects of a global language and shows justification of how the global spread of English has both benefitted and harmed the language.
















English is the dominant international language of the 21st century. It is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the world’s population. As the language of communications, science, information technology, business, entertainment and diplomacy, it has increasingly become the operating system for the global conversation. Two qualities have been pivotal in the evolutionary rise of English: momentum and adaptability. The momentum was originally provided by the political, military, religious and merchant classes. Through colonisation, ship-borne trade with the Americas, North Africa, the Indies and China, and the attendant role of Christian missionaries, the English language was exported worldwide. Arabic and Spanish spread similarly through conquest and religious conversion, across the Islamic world and the Americas, in parallel to the rise of English. But they did not adapt and adopt with the pace and flexibility of English. Though the UK’s political and military power was crucial in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Louisiana Purchase1 in 1803 was to prove of major significance. This established English as dominant over French in the United States; and then – as the UK’s empire shrank in the 20th century – rapidly growing American global influence gave the language a momentum perhaps unique in modern history.


As English was spreading, it was also adapting and absorbing, soaking up vocabulary from elsewhere. Arabic, Spanish, Hindi and Malay words all found their way into the English lexicon through trade and colonisation, joining the contributions from a thousand years earlier of Old Norse and Norman French and, with the coming of the Renaissance, Latin and Ancient Greek. In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution generated a variety of new words – a new technical lexicon – such as ‘factory’, ‘steam-press’, ‘stethoscope’: some of them returning to classical roots, others taking on simpler terms, to describe processes, concepts that were either new or newly discovered. The process continues and has intensified today – with many more scientific, technological and creative discoveries (and their patents and trademarks) now described and named in English when once they were introduced to the world in German and French. Words expand their meanings to cover new situations (‘a computer mouse’); the language incorporates or creates new words to express new concepts (‘to email’ or ‘to google’). The only constant is change. This globalisation of the language has led to a diverse range of ‘Englishes’, subtly different not just from a ‘standard’ English, but from each another. The European Commission2, for example, recognises that over the years, ‘European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions’. Along the way it provides a window into concepts that are common in one nation’s bureaucratic tradition, but not others.

English is now spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, enabling a true single market in knowledge and ideas. Non-native speakers now substantially outnumber native speakers and as a result, English increasingly belongs to the world rather than to any one country. Factors that contributed to the spread of English included the global success of American music and movies, as well as the development of computer technologies and the Internet, which are based on programming languages derived from English. It is especially the factors of mass media, global trade and popular culture which are connected with the USA. Around the world there is enormous demand and need for English in the state and public education systems, especially in developing economies.

People in general have different opinions on English as a “global” language. There are positive as well as negative aspects of this.  Translation has always played a central role in interaction between people with different languages and language skills. Thousands of years ago, monarchs, ambassadors and merchants had to rely on someone to translate. But the more linguistically mixed the community got, the less they could rely on individuals to ensure their communication. Most of these problems have been solved with a lingua franca or a “pidgin”A pidgin is a language created, usually spontaneously, from a mixture of other languages as a means of communication between speakers of different languages Pidgins have simple grammar and few synonyms. The prospect that a lingua franca might be needed for the whole world is something that has arisen in the twentieth century. Since the 1950s, many international organisations have come into being e.g. the UN and the World Bank. Also political groupings e.g. The European Union and The Commonwealth have come into being. The pressure to make an agreement concerning one language has become urgent, but it is a sensitive issue. (Crystal 2003: 12-13)




The need for a global language is mainly appreciated by the international academic and business communities, but also by individuals as the world becomes more and more global. (Crystal 2003: 12-13)


Why English has grown as much as it has, and why it might be seen as the best option for a global language have more than one answer. One is the geographical-historical reasons, and another is the socio-cultural. The geographical-historical part explains how English has reached its position and the socio-cultural explains how and why it remains that way. (Crystal 2003: 29)

English came to England from northern Europe during the fifth century and started to spread around the British Isles. (Crystal 2003: 30)

The historical movement of English around the world began with the expeditions to Asia and America and continued with the colonial developments in Africa and the South Pacific. When many colonies became independent during the mid-twentieth century, they kept English as their official language or semi-official language. This led to a major step forward for the English language; it is represented on every continent and on islands in the three major oceans, making the label “global language” a reality. (Crystal 2003: 29)

The socio-cultural aspect looks at the way people in many ways have become dependent on English for their social life and for their economic well-being. English is the language of many business and political domains and also the language of entertainment such as television, the film industry, the music business, communication (internet, telecommunication and computers) and safety. (Crystal 2003: 29)


Today’s status of English has mainly two reasons; the expansion of the British colonial power and the emergence of the economical power of the United States. The latter is what scientist argue explain the status of English in the world today. (Crystal 2003: 59)


‘What seems to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it – assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.’ (Salman Rushdie,  1992)

Graddol (1997: 11) speaks of “75 or so countries in which English has special status”, Ethnologue lists 106 countries and territories where English is spoken. McArthur (2002: 3) is in-between with his statement that “English is used in over 70 countries as an official or semi-official language and has a significant role in over 20 more”. Moreover, it is difficult to define what may be considered to be ‘English’, as some languages are called varieties of English, others are recognised as pidgins and creoles,

Phillipson states that “the number of native speakers of English now remains constant at about 315 million, whereas Crystal (1997a: 54) estimates the number between 320 and 380 million, whereas Crystal (2003: 109), somewhat surprisingly, counts 329,058,300 native speakers. If the number of speakers of English as a Native Language (ENL) is uncertain, then the estimates for speakers of English as a Second Language (ESL) are even more so. Crystal (1985: 7, referred to in Phillipson, 1992: 24) approximates the number of ESL speakers at 300 million, whereas Graddol (1997: 10) states a total number of 375 million. Crystal (2003: 109) counts 422,682,300 ESL speakers. The number has risen from 300 million to nearly 423 million within 18 years.

Chew (1999) reports on the linguistic development of Singapore, where the English language has been established as an official language, not as a result of natural development or because of historical reasons, but by law. The use of English has been enforced by the government and therefore it has become a dominant language, which has enabled the country to take part in the global economy and profit from globalisation. At the same time, English is seen as serving as “the courier of many cultures and sub-cultures” (Chew, 1999: 42) and the population of Singapore “views the adoption of English not so much as a threat to their own languages but as the key to a share of the world’s symbolic power” (Chew, 1999: 43).





                          Positive and Negative Aspects on English as a Global Language



Positive aspects of English as a Global Language


As a result of globalisation the function of English as an international tool for communication needs rethinking in the English language classroom. This does not only include linguistic skills to understand various kinds of accents and to be understood by others, but it also includes knowledge of other cultures which provides the learners with the ability to respond adequately to problems arising from cultural differences between the participants in international communication, Since English is the only truly world-wide or global language, its importance, especially in education, is still increasing; this development positively influences the learners’ abilities to participate in international communication, but it can also have a negative effect on other languages that are taught. Although other languages are vital in understanding other cultures, their importance seems to be decreasing, especially in the eyes of students and their parents. Since English is the language of international trade and economy, it regarded to be an indispensable prerequisite for taking part in future economic developments. As a result, the foreign language to be learned at school will very often be chosen by parents and pupils according to its value for future employment, regardless of pedagogical, social or political aspects. The teaching of English at all educational levels is therefore also promoted by many governments.


 According to Buck (2005), English has, without doubt, reached the top position in the language hierarchy. Almost 30 % of the population are already “reasonably competent” in English. As the language of commerce, economy and politics, knowledge of and fluency in that language is helpful when participating in these fields. The economic power houses, the political bodies and commercial organisations also use English as their language of communication. More than 85% of the scientific, technological and academic production in the world today is performed in English. By using English we are able to communicate with people in almost all countries all over the world. English is the most widely spoken language with regards to number of countries, even though Chinese, Hindi and Spanish have more native speakers.


The case might be that even in countries where one of the other languages is spoken we will be able to communicate with the inhabitants, using English as a lingua franca. It is often taken for granted that one speaks English and when someone does not, one might be looked upon suspiciously.


Approximately 40 people from different backgrounds, different age and with different nationalities which language they would prefer as a global language and the majority answered English. The following reasons were given: It is the language we hear and read every day; the younger generations have learned it in school and it would be the best global language because it is the most spread all over the world. The people, who disagreed, said that Spanish would be the best global language, because it has more native speakers than English.

Intercultural communication

Difficulties emerging in intercultural communication do not only affect non- native speakers Smith (1983: 9) argues that in intercultural communication in English, native speakers of English have a certain responsibility for the success of the conversation.

Native speakers must […] sharpen their perceptions of what may go wrong in an intercultural conversation. They must recognize the need for talking with the other person about what has gone wrong when there is a communication break down. Native speakers must be sensitized to the probability of misunderstanding and be prepared to deal with it.

As pointed out above, English may e viewed as a homogenising language that promotes cultural uniformity. However, English can also function as a “universalizing language” in lingua franca communication, allowing negotiation of meaning between different cultures and thus permitting cultural heterogeneity (McArthur 2002a: 2f.). Successful cross-cultural communication depends on the speakers’ ability to understand different modes of thinking and living; this is exessed by the term “intercultural competence” (Byram & Fleming, 1998: 1jlntercultUrai competence is regarded as being one of the major aims when discussing the teaching of English as a Foreign Language. However, according to a study by House (1999: 85), the major source for misunderstandings does not lie so much in the cultural differences, but in a lack of pragmatic fluency. This means that routinised pragmatic phenomenon  like gambits or discourse strategies are not used appropriately1 and that F speakers are not able to initiate topics arid topic changes using suitable routines or they may have difficulty inresponding to the other person’s speech adequately (cf. House, 1999: 81). This does not necessarily imply that intercultural competence should not be one of the key issues in English language teaching (ELT), but rather that other areas of language and communication
should notable neglected. –





Negative aspects of English as a Global Language


Even though there are many positive aspects of having a global language, there are     negative aspects as well. A global language might cultivate an elite class with native speakers, who take advantage of the possibility to think and work quickly in their mother-tongue. If this was the case they might manipulate it to their advantage at the expense of those who has another language as their mother-tongue and in this way create a linguistic gap between people. (Crystal 2003: 14-15)


The spread of English has therefore an ambivalent character; it is a lingua franca necessary for international communication, and it is a vehicle for the spread of a culture influenced by the USA and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. Dovring (1997: x) has researched into the “problems in understanding double talk in political English around the world” by analysing the massive impact of electronic media on the spread of English as a global lingua franca. English is not only seen as a threat to other languages, but also to the cultures connected with these languages. When English is taught, it is seldom ever entirely separated from its cultural background, which is generally American and British. Non-native users of English may fear an ‘anglification’ of their own culture, or they may feel communicatively disadvantaged, because native speakers of English can use their native language. On the other hand, native speakers may fear that through the increasing use of English as a lingua franca, non-native speakers may have considerable impact on the English language and “take possession” of it.

Chew (1999) reports on the linguistic development of Singapore, where the English language has been established as an official language, not as a result of natural development or because of historical reasons, but by law. The use of English has been enforced by the government and therefore it has become a dominant language, which has enabled the country to take part in the global economy and profit from globalisation. At the same time, English is seen as serving as “the courier of many cultures and sub-cultures” (Chew, 1999: 42) and the population of Singapore “views the adoption of English not so much as a threat to their own languages but as the key to a share of the world’s symbolic power” (Chew, 1999: 43).


English has a history, sometimes cruel and violent with colonialism and war, and introducing English as the global language might be seen as a threat of future dominance. Perhaps a global language will make people unwilling or unable to learn other languages and make other languages unnecessary. (Crystal 2003: 15)

One of the “risks” having only one language is that the chosen language may become very technical and “impoverished” for non-native speakers, e.g. the Eskimos, who have several words for snow, because they need it. They would probably not be able to express themselves properly if they only had one word for snow. And Swedish people would not be able to use the word “lagom”, a word which says a lot about the Swedish society and people.


Many of the people who answered my question about “English as a Global Language”, expressed a worry that if we only had one language, they would feel “poor” when it comes to expressing feelings and emotions in a language that is not their mother-tongue, that they would not know enough words to be able to really express how and what they feel.


Minor Languages and cultures


An introduction of a global language might lead to discrimination of other languages. Losing a language equals losing identity. The language is much more than just a tool for communication. According to Trudgill, there is an intimate relation between language and culture and a large homogenisation of culture might lead to a shift in language where native people adopt another language and eventually the old language may die out. There is a difference between “language death” and “language murder”. Language death is when a language disappears naturally; its speakers are leaving it voluntarily, but “language murder” means that the killer language actively discourages use of other languages. Minority languages may be removed from the media and educational systems.


From time to time English is discussed as the only official language for the EU, although many Europeans fear that other languages may ‘lose’ and eventually disappear due to the widespread use of English. They see English as a ‘killer language’ which destroys weaker languages. English is a “killer language” means that it is a dominant language learned subtractive, at the cost of the mother tongues, rather than additively Lesser-used languages are seen to be particularly threatened by English. Of course, the cultural identity of smaller communities is strongly connected to the respective language, so a loss of the language would have a considerable impact on the culture, all of which does not seem desirable. If a language loses importance and eventually dies out, speakers would rather adopt other regional languages as their primary language and not English.

So if for instance Lithuanian should die out, speakers will probably adopt Latvian as their first language rather than English or Russian, the language of the former oppressor. On the other hand, if Maltese should face extinction, the speakers will probably turn to English, as it is their second official language. With regard to other countries that once adopted English as their official language and kept their own culture “The fear that the possible adoption of English as a lingua franca in the EU, or as only a working language of the EU institution, will seriously threaten the diversity of languages and cultures appears to be completely without foundation. Nevertheless, English is the dominant language in the educational sector in Europe, where learners prefer to have English taught as the first foreign language. The spread of other European languages outside their native speaker- territory could in this way be ‘threatened’ by English.


In the United States there have been a few “English Only” movements, the first one in 1803, when they banned the speaking of French among the population in Louisiana. After that, several attempts to remove Spanish and French have taken place. English is declared as the official language in several states in the US. The English-Only movements have been rejected by linguistics; they mean that a language does not create political unity, it takes more than that.


The use of one single language in a community is no guarantee for social harmony or mutual understanding. This has been proven several times during the history, e.g. American Civil War, Spanish Civil War and former Yugoslavia. (Crystal 2003:16)


English has developed as a global language for a range of reasons, many of them historical, rather than anything intrinsic in the language itself. This essay has shown that the creation of a global language has numerous benefits and harmful effects. The enormous irregularities in the English system of spelling, for example, may often be seen by a newcomer as a disincentive. Millions, however, are undeterred. One of the strongest incentives for learning the language is the use to which it can immediately be put, socially, economically and culturally. From education and the creative economy to IT and advanced engineering, industries in the UK benefit hugely from using the English language. But it also helps economies overseas to prosper. English language skills provide life-changing opportunities, and promote prosperity and security around the world – to the extent that development efforts have now become ‘inextricably linked in governmental and academic circles as well as in the media with English language education’14. Research in countries in the Middle East and North Africa suggests that the need to widen the scope of domestic industry and also attract more inward investment by multinationals is fuelling the fast-growing demand for improved English education. It is also clear that reducing unemployment as a means of securing political stability is an imperative for many of these countries.






Crystal, D. 1997 English as a global language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gnutzmann, C., Intemann, F. 2008 The Globalisation of English and the English Language Classroom (Second Edition)

Rubdy, R. Saraceni, M. An interview with suresh Canagarajah.


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