Why Does Everyone Want to Learn English?

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Why Does Everyone Want to Learn English?

Ever since ancient times, travelers and traders have crossed borders. When they did so, they found themselves in strange lands where the people didn’t speak the same language as they did. It was possible to communicate—sometimes—but only in a very basic way. It was virtually impossible to share scientific, legal, or diplomatic knowledge without learning the other man’s language—or him learning yours. This wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish, especially before the advent of printing and widespread literacy.

There was one solution. If both sides learned a third language, that would be the medium of conversation and exchange. In turn, this language could be used to interact with other nations and cultures. This concept is called the lingua franca. The prevailing lingua franca at any given time is also known as a “bridge language,” which is an apt metaphor—it spans the differences between cultures.

The first Western lingua franca was Latin, preceded to some extent by Greek. While Latin was more imposed on Rome’s conquered peoples than freely adopted by them, it was still useful for different subject—and free—cultures as a communication tool. Britons, Germans, or Greeks would be able to converse with one another, and most importantly, conduct trade.

After the Roman Empire fell, Latin continued in its role as lingua franca for over a thousand years. It was the language of the Christian Church as well as of science and learning. Almost all books were written in Latin, and scientists in different countries could share their knowledge, even if they didn’t speak the same language. This continued well into the 19th century—you can see this in the fields of biology and medicine, where much of the existing terminology is still in Latin. It was important for scientists to share information, and Latin was the best tool for that.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when this happened, but with the spread of the British Empire in the Victorian era, followed by the rise of the US to the status of a world power in the 20th century, English became the world’s next lingua franca. This happened not because of any inherent superiority of the language, but because it was convenient. Over 100 different countries speaking tens of thousands of languages needed a way to communicate with one another in the modern world. You could, of course, prepare for this by learning French, German, Russian, Italian, Swahili, Chinese, Hindi, etc. etc. etc.—which is what many people did. This was obviously unwieldy. It was better to learn English and hope the other guy spoke it too.

The most recent development making English a global language was the internet. The need to communicate once again drove people to learn English. Even today, translation software works poorly, and a decade ago, it barely existed. You had to learn English or be shut out from the rest of the world. Also, the economic and political ascendance of Asia has prompted a rush to learn English—it is easier for Asian language speakers to learn English than for English speakers to learn Asian languages, with their tonality and ideographic writing styles.

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