Language is useful. It is certainly one of the most useful tools we can use in intercultural communication. Study English hard! It will definitely help. English is an important language and you should try to make the best use of its powers. You should bear in mind, however, that there are only about 400 million native speakers of English in the world. That’s quite a lot less than half the number of native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Almost 15% of the world’s population are native speakers of Mandarin. Less than 6% of the global population are native speakers of English — that’s less than Spanish! So why is English so influential? Are native speakers of English so great? No, it’s basically, because of you! The main thing that makes English a global language is the number of non-native speakers. Non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers by 3 to 1! You are the ones with the power. You should work hard to really get English and make it work for you.
To a large extent, the English language spread because of the power of the British Empire from the late sixteenth to the twentieth century. Britain had a lot of coal and the conditions were just right to allow the British to take advantage of economic and technological developments.
Some people argue that the English-speaking world is still too powerful and influential, particularly with the development of the internet. For example, about 25% of internet users are Chinese speakers but only about 4% of internet content is in Chinese! About 27% of internet users are English speakers but about 55% of internet content is in English!
The situation with regard to the English language is very complicated. People’s attitudes and values reflect their historical relationship to the language in some way. Nearly 100% of the population of Jamaica are English speakers. The same goes for many other countries in the Caribbean. By comparison, only about 85% of Canadians are English-speakers because French is spoken in many parts of Canada. Compare that to the Netherlands (about 90%), Sweden (about 85%), Singapore (about 80%), Germany (about 65%), and the Philippines (about 55%). Some of these people grew up speaking English and some had to learn it later in life.
It’s a complicated situation. Even in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where just about everyone speaks English, people’s relationships to English are not always straightforward. People in England can say that their country is the home of the English language and they are rightfully proud of the global spread of English.
However, people in Wales, immediately to the west of England, have a much more complicated relationship to English. Forms of the ancient Welsh language were spoken all over Britain long before the English language developed and about 20% of Welsh people still speak Welsh. Welsh is a much older language than English and very different. I am from south Wales and, in my experience, people in northern Wales are perfectly happy to speak English to foreign tourists but not very happy about speaking English to English people or English-speakers from other parts of Wales. In fact, they can be very bad-tempered about it! The people of Ireland are generally happy to use English; indeed they are among the most creative users of the English language in the world. Even so, the Irish endured terrible hardship at the hands of English-speaking colonists for hundreds of years. They worked hard, very often employing the power of the English language, to kick the hated British out of Ireland.
Think of the situation in India. India was part of the British Empire and leaders of the independence movement like Mahatma Ghandi used the power of the English language to get the British out of India. You should work hard to make the English language belong to you so you can make it work for you. It’s a complicated situation; people’s attitudes to the English language can be very complicated indeed. It’s impossible to separate language from our attitudes and values. Have fun figuring it all out!
Anyway, check out the PowerPoint slides here.