18 October 2018

How English Became the World’s Number One Language

tower of london

Britain’s colonial history may have its flaws, but it has also resulted in an interconnected world where one language is the fulcrum of international business.

However, as globalisation has started to become ubiquitous, cultural diversity and awareness has become increasingly important in the world of business. While confident and competent business English skills are still your best bet when it comes to international business, you will also massively benefit from a nuanced understanding of the local culture and language of the location you are doing business with or in.

A Germanic-French hybrid

Way back in the 5th century, a Germanic tribal migration into England led to the creation of what we think of as ‘Old English’ – the language of classical poetry such as Beowulf. This supplanted the Celtic language in use at the time, as the native people were pushed into Wales, Scotland and Ireland, taking the Celtic language with them. ‘Middle English’ followed – the language of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales – when the Duke of Normandy invaded. Middle English brings the French element to the English language.

Modern-day English evolved from the 1500s, when Shakespeare crafted tales in a language we can recognise today. Modern English has continued to evolve, and a wealth of new words have entered its vocabulary in recent centuries due to sharp shifts in mechanisation and technology.

English around the world

Inspired by the global explorations enjoyed by Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, other European countries set sail in search of new territories. England, France and the Netherlands, in particular, sought to establish new colonies around the world. Rivalries between these entrepreneurial nations often led to competition and disputes over territories, but as the 17th century drew to a close England had a strong foothold in a number of key continents, including Asia and North America.

Britain formed in 1707 when England and Scotland united. When North American colonies declared independence later that century, British interests shifted further towards Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Penal colonies were now being formed in Australia rather than America, and over time the Australian gold rush led to the development of the British Empire’s second largest city at the time, Melbourne (second only to London). Settlements were soon to follow in New Zealand as well. English had reached the other side of the world!

From early in the 19th century through to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, British interests dominated the world. The British held sizeable control of the world’s economies and trade due to the extent of its empire, and inevitably its language became the effective language of business. English had also become the principal language of the colonies it had created, including the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand.

English also played an administrative role in more trade-oriented colonies in Asia and Africa, and it continues to operate as a major language of business and education in both continents today. In countries where English is not the native language, it is often used as a second language or an official language (for example throughout large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia).

English is now spoken or being learned by an estimated 1.5 billion people – a staggering 20% of the world’s population. It is also spoken in over 100 countries around the world. Few of these countries have English as a native language, so Britain’s imperial ambitions have significantly contributed to this widespread reach.

The rise of American English

By the 20th century, political events on a global scale were taking their toll on the British Empire, reshaping it entirely. English remained the dominant global language; however, it was the worldwide spread of the American business ethic and culture after the Second World War that defined how the English language would be perceived in the 20th century. American English had a significant influence on the world’s cultural consciousness through iconic American brands, music and cinema.

English in the 21st century

The rapid expansion of modern technology as the 20th century moved into the 21st century has been mind-boggling to witness. The rise of computers from enormous machines to portable laptops, let alone the ubiquity of the smartphone, has revolutionised the way we conduct business and live our lives.

With the development of the internet, many businesses tend to transact with and reach out to potential customers in English, the language that has the most global chance of recognition. Advertisers around the world utilise English widely in their campaigns, and English continues to be considered the global language of business, wherever you operate – whether you speak American, British, Australian, or any other subtle variation of English.

Opportunities for global expansion can certainly benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the local culture, language and history of the location in which you wish to expand. In particular, you can hope to earn the respect of your potential partners if you prioritise investing in an understanding of their heritage and language. However, confident and competent business English skills can help you to develop, evolve and finish conversations if a language barrier would otherwise exist.

Contact us today to find out more about our business English courses, and how they can help your organisation to make the best of every global prospect.

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