The Global Language

A few weeks ago Geoff and I traveled to Munich, Germany to celebrate Oktoberfest with the Bavarians. We had an amazing time. Munich is beautiful, and the people were very friendly. We loved it so much that we’re considering visiting again next year.

This trip was my first visit to mainland Europe. It was also my first time really visiting a place where English is not the primarily spoken language. I’ve visited Mexico and Honduras, but both of those were cruise ship stops, so I don’t really consider those truly “immersive” experiences where the language barrier made any impact. In Germany, it was much more prevalent. All the signs were in German, the train announcements were in German, and the restaurant menus were in German.

As we asked for English menus at the restaurant, I started to think about languages. As someone who speaks English, I just expect other people to speak English too. Even when I’m in a country that has an official language other than English, I am treated to an English menu. Why has English become the “global language”?

I did some research on the most common languages as I started thinking about it more. According to Wikipedia, the most common native language and the language with the most total speakers is Mandarin Chinese. The second most common native language is Spanish, but the language with the second most total speakers is English!

Wikipedia lists English as having about 340 million native speakers and an estimated 942 million total speakers. That means that over 600 million people have chosen to speak English as an additional language! That is more secondary speakers than the other two languages in the top three, Chinese and Spanish, have combined. But why have so many people chosen to learn English when Chinese and Spanish both have more native speakers?

Native Speakers plus Additional Language

My first guess as to why English is most popular was the obvious one: Money. English is widely regarded as the language of business. I took a look into everyone’s favorite beacon of capitalism, Walmart. According to their website, Walmart is bringing out the best in people in 28 different countries around the world. I looked at a few of the websites for the Walmart-owned international subsidiaries. As you may expect, the Walmart Brazil site defaults to Portuguese, the Walmart Chile site is in Spanish, and the Walmart China site is in Chinese. Sites for India and in some African countries are in English by default, but that makes sense because English is considered a national language in those countries. I attempted to navigate the non-English sites using my browser’s translation feature (which works surprisingly well. Thanks, Google!). I was able to manage finding the “Careers” section for Walmart China. Every position required at least elementary English, even with a role based in China. So even in a country where the national language is the most commonly spoken language in the world, English is a requirement for a job.

How did English become so prevalent, though?

Many of the articles I read while researching for this post suggested the reason is historical. The British Empire covered much of the world during its height, spreading from Australia and New Zealand, to Malaysia, and through Central Africa and America. In all of these colonies an English-speaking government was set up, and thus, English spread throughout. Once the British Empire began to fall in the 19th century, that wasn’t the end for English. The United States was becoming a world power and dominating much of the global conversation in, you guessed it,  English. The United States’ continued dominance politically, culturally, technologically, and militarily throughout the 20th and now 21st century has allowed English to continue being a highly desirable language to speak.

Countries of the British Empire. Source:

Countries of the British Empire. Source:

As we saw with the Walmart example, many job offerings internationally require English, but besides professional motivation, leisure time is also encouraging English. Many of the world’s most popular movies, music, and TV shows are produced in English. So even in relaxation time many who don’t speak English natively are probably learning and practicing the English language. We all know (and can take comfort in) that sitting in front of the TV or computer binge-watching Netflix is not a uniquely American pastime.

Looking specifically at Netflix offerings in Italy, they are primarily popular American movies and TV shows. Presumably these are offered with Italian subtitles, but even when someone may be watching something with subtitles, we can suspect they learn a word or two of American English (hopefully good ones). Reviewing the Netflix libraries in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, France, and others, the trend was the same: popular American TV shows and movies. WIth the growing popularity of Netflix and other streaming content providers, it really is no surprise the popularity of English as an additional language across the globe. We can all expect to discuss Walter White’s downfalls and the latest season of Orange Is The New Black with the locals on holidays abroad, don’t worry.

Exploring the growth of the English language around the world, I started think that must mean other languages will start to die out with English taking their place. Will English really become the language of the world? I think it may.

I’m not saying it will be anytime soon, it will probably take several generations, but if English is really so valuable to learn for both business and entertainment, wouldn’t it make sense that parents start teaching their children English as early as possible? Perhaps even starting to teach their children English before their native language to give their child the best chance at speaking English fluently? If everyone else is speaking English, what would be the point of maintaining other languages?

Recently Geoff downloaded the app Duolingo to start learning Irish. My response when he told me this was “Why? No one actually speaks Irish.” And that’s pretty true. The Irish have tried to keep their language relevant by requiring studying Irish in schools and keeping Irish translations on signs, but I don’t ever hear anyone speaking Irish in daily life. Now, I am in Dublin, so my sample is skewed. On the west coast of Ireland, Irish is spoken more commonly, but still, the 2011 Census reported that Irish is the third most commonly spoken language in Ireland after English and Polish, and outside of school, only 1.8% of Irish people speak Irish every day.

Sign with missing Irish translation in a Dublin Hospital. Source:

Sign with missing Irish translation in a Dublin Hospital. Source:

Irish isn’t the only language which has faded into the shadow of English. In America, Native American languages are becoming endangered, too. The most commonly spoken Native American language today is Navajo and only about half of Navajo people speak the language. And in Wales, only 19% of people speak Welsh, with even fewer speaking the language daily.  

In Germany, German remains dominate (95% of people speaking), but more than half (56%) of Germans can speak English, and a 2013 survey reported that 59% of Germans would support English becoming the official language of the European Union. (If you’re wondering, the EU maintains 24 official and working languages, so all documents are translated and maintained in all 24. If you asked me, the Germans likely voted this way because of their penchant for efficiency.)

So what do you think... would it be good if the world was unified by a single language? It might be economically and maybe politically beneficial, but at what cost? Languages help unify and strengthen cultures, and they represent the history and identity of the differing regions of the world. Many measures have been put in place to protect and grow dying languages.  Here in Ireland, Irish is taught to students all the way through secondary school, and it is part of the Leaving Cert (final exam taken to graduate high school and required for university admissions) to attempt to keep Gaeilge alive. Even so, less than 2% of people in Ireland speak Irish daily, so is merely requiring students to take the course in school really “keeping the language alive”? I’m not so sure. I can bet that many think taking Irish courses is a waste of time, and it could be just a matter of time before a more “important” or “relevant” course takes its place.

I don’t think it’s a good thing, but I do think in a few hundred years, we’ll see the three top languages competing to become the world’s language. As we all become more connected and the global economy grows, there will be a need for the common tongue, and the way things are trending now, it looks like the winner may be English. It probably won’t be the same exact English we have today, but I think it will be English-based.

If you don’t think this is a big deal, would you feel the same if it was Chinese that was on track to be the common tongue?