Is it all just a coincidence? Is it all in your head? Or does it seem as if the English language is becoming more and more common in the everyday lives of Europeans—regardless of the mother tongue spoken within individual countries. Take part in an international university seminar and you’ll probably find that all the programs take place in English. Walk into a clothing retailer in continental Europe and it’s likely you’ll see more t-shirts in English than the native language. Attend a conference, where someone from Italy is conversing with someone from Sweden in English. In fact, the British linguist David Graddol has found that 2 billion people across the world are learning English. The English language has become the closest thing to a world language that we’ve ever had.
This makes sense, really. In a society of seemingly infinite choice (whether it is a language or a television show or a box of cereal on the supermarket shelf), the human mind seeks to narrow the crowd. This eases the difficulty of decision and allows us to go about our day without constantly sifting through every single option available to us. In Europe alone, the multitude of choice is dizzying. At one end, there is Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, and so on—at the other: Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Finnish, and many, many others. Between all of this, you are faced with dozens of other dialects, each calling out from its place on the shelf, a nonsensical pitch of voices and indecipherable sounds. What is a reasonable person supposed to do? You begin to pick and choose, you follow the formula that you developed at some point in life when you realized there was more stuff in the world than you could ever possibly consume or participate in. Which language do they teach in school? What might help get me the job that I want? What is the language spoken by the person you find attractive? And since you are reading this article, you chose (or had chosen for you) English. And it appears that, somewhere along the way, the rest of the world made the same choice.
[...] as the twentieth century trundled forward, there were three major factors that contributed to the widespread use of English throughout the world: commerce, entertainment, and globalization.
Other languages – Russian, German, Spanish, Dutch – had some chance to establish themselves as the lingua franca. But as the twentieth century trundled forward, there were three major factors that contributed to the widespread use of English throughout the world: commerce, entertainment, and globalization.
One might be able to communicate basic needs in, say, a vegetable market without speaking the dominant language. Point to the basket of tomatoes, hold up three fingers, and the vendor will have a pretty good idea of what you need. But as commerce has expanded beyond the borders of small markets, or single nations, or even continents, it has become clear that a common language is increasingly necessary.
Commerce has been altered dramatically by the shifting foundation of technology and business in the past century. From the industrial revolution to the internet, international finance, stock markets, increased trade: for a company to operate in a more efficient manner, to grow and compete on a global scale, it was necessary to communicate effectively between nations. And for many companies to do this, all at the same time, every day, a default language would need to rise to the top of the linguistic heap. What language though? Perhaps the greatest other competitor might have been Russia. After all, Russia had a huge population and many of the resources necessary for international trade. But then the Bolsheviks drove the country into Communism, and as a result, Russia did most of its trading with itself and with the small number of other Communist nations, thus excluding its language from international commerce.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom—through aggressive trade, imperial policies, and robust economic drive—had long been a primary force behind financial markets. And by the end of the twentieth century, the United States had become an essential consideration in nearly every economic decision, regardless of the origin of a company.
These changes had an impact on companies and the culture in general. Renault, the French automaker, designated English as the language of communication for senior management. A number of other corporations have done the same. In recognition of this trend, schools and universities placed increasing value on the necessity of learning English. As a result more and more people learn English at an ever-younger age.
Among all the other dramatic changes that took place in the twentieth century, one of the most important to consider was the increased significance of entertainment on the lives of ordinary humans. At the same time as average personal income and leisure time increased, the availability of cheap entertainment exploded. Innovations such as radio, television, film, and the internet gave anyone—everyone—access to entertainment.
Much of this entertainment was in English. In the early twentieth century, innovations in music began to take form—swing, jazz, the blues, and later, rock & roll—often in English, and carried by radio all across the world. If you wanted to sing along it helped to know the language. Meanwhile Hollywood spread its films across the world. And although the internet is available in every language, it has become yet another platform to spread the messages of English language entertainment culture. All of this has created a very effective kind of advertising (or if you prefer: propaganda) in the promotion of English as a lingua franca.
The world has become a much smaller place in the past few decades. For most of human development, Europe was a very private territory. Although Europeans may have ventured to other lands for trade or imperialist reasons from time to time, a majority of the commerce—and the conflict—remained within the continental borders. If things had remained this way, the outcome might have been different. However, travel became easier, more routine; companies reached farther into international territories; the internet made communication seamless, despite distance. The only thing that was separating us any longer was language.
So then, in this circumstance, what was it that gave English the edge. The answer lies beyond the borders of Europe. As globalization shrunk the world, other English-speaking nations gained ever-greater importance in the culture and commerce of Europe. Before, English was only represented by the United Kingdom and its 80 million inhabitants (which is about equal to that of France, less than German-speaking countries, and far less than the Russia in population). But globalization gave less priority to location, and as you look to the east and west of Europe, you see America and Canada on one side, and Australia on the other. English had Europe surrounded.
Many other reasons can be provided, pointing to education, war, economics migration, technology, etc. But ultimately, English is only a platform, a way of exchanging ideas and thoughts. It is a way for you and me to fulfill our very human need to communicate.