From Walter Raleigh to Steve Jobs and Rihanna. From an island to the entire world. The reasons underlying the international spread of English.
“In the right place at the right time”. This simple statement summarises all the answers to the questions about the reasons for which English, and not other languages, has become the international lingua franca, i.e. the code used for communicating by speakers of different languages around the globe.
In order to understand, we will have to take a step back in time and introduce the figure of sir Walter Raleigh. If today English is spoken on a global scale, sir Raleigh, an aristocrat, poet and explorer supported by Elizabeth I, deserves some credit. As a matter of fact, his expeditions to America led to the first English settlement on the land that was to become United States territory.
The flag planted overseas by Raleigh was the first of an Empire which managed to establish its presence in every continent by the beginning of the 20th century, from India to Australia, from South Africa to Canada. In each British colony, English affirmed its role as the language of administration, trade and education, especially among the upper classes. In certain cases it totally replaced the local languages. After all, the establishment of a language is hardly ever a democratic process, as quite often it is only the result of wars or battles of power where the stronger side wins and imposes their own language on those who have been defeated.
“The sun never sets on the British Empire” was a very common statement in the centuries when Britain’s power reached its climax. However, given that nothing is permanent and everything flows (“panta rhei” as ancient Greeks used to say), the sun did set on the British Empire, which piece after piece began to fall apart after India, led by Gandhi, proclaimed its independence in 1947. Nevertheless the English language was not in a position of danger. In fact, if on the one hand Britain’s influence was on the wane after World War Two, on the other hand the USA emerged as a global superpower.
As we have already seen, those who win the war often impose their own language on those who have been conquered. For this reason the language of the two largest victorious countries became the only official language – or in certain cases one of the official languages – of international organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and the EU.
The global spread of English was caused not only by political, but also economic and cultural factors. For decades Hollywood films and American tv series have hyped the American way of life as a model to look up to not only in the US, but also in the so-called Western world.
In music, at the top of international hit parades we are accustomed to finding a crushing majority of British or American songs. Whether they like The Beatles, Iron Maiden or Rihanna, most non-native speakers of English have by now become very familiar with words and expressions such as love, feelings, I want you, I need you, etc.
Even the boom of Information Technology and the Internet have contributed to the establishment of English as the international lingua franca. The language of electronics, computers, software, smart phones, etc is English, while multinational corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple were founded in America, where they are still located.
If we look at the World University Rankings ( http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings ) , we will find that academic excellence is represented by institutions such as the Harvard, MIT, University College London, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, which are based in the Anglo-Saxon world. In addition to this, the most advanced papers and books on science and medicine are also written and published in English.
These, in a nutshell, are the reasons for the “right place” – a strong presence in all of the five continents – and the “right time” – the age of the Internet, mass media and instant communication – which have allowed English to become the global lingua franca.
With regard to future prospects, the question is: Will English be able to retain this role? We do not have a crystal ball, but educated guesses will be provided in the next articles… See you!