English Language Rules the World

By Dyer, Gwynne | Winnipeg Free Press, May 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

English Language Rules the World


Dyer, Gwynne, Winnipeg Free Press


The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that "English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one." It is destined "in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age."

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one per cent of the world's population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams' prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014, all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university's rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: "We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice."

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere -- and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift underway, and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world's second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don't they just learn each other's languages?

Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won't get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas -- or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America.

Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca everybody can use with everybody else.

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