Have you ever travelled to a foreign country only to find out that none of the inhabitants of that country speak English? How annoying is that?
Today’s post and subsequent video topic was inspired by a livestream I watched between Azren the Language Nerd and Matt and Abigail from Polyglot Progress. To sum up, at one point in the livestream, the topic of monolingualism came up as well as the idea of an “international language”, and it got me thinking.
Primarily, I wanted to answer two questions: should there be one single international language for the entire world? Secondly, should that international language be English? Let’s explore!
The History of English
To recap, English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain starting in the 5th century. Because it is West Germanic, English is closely related to other Northwest European languages such as German, Dutch, and Frisian. Due largely to British conquests and the expansion of the British Empire starting in the 1500s, today you can find English speakers in virtually every corner of the world.
English is an official language in 54 countries around the world, and a de facto official language in dozens more including the United States of America. According to Enthologue, English is the most spoken language in the world if you count native and second-language speakers, and it is spoken by 1.1 billion people. That means that 1 in every 7 people on Earth speak English to some degree.
On those numbers alone, if we’re trying to determine whether or not English should be the international language, this data alone says that it should. Since English is already so widespread and it has already brought together so many people of different backgrounds, it would only make sense that English becomes the Official International Language.
English: The Obvious Choice for International Language?
In addition to being the most widely spoken language in the world, there are additional reasons for why English should be the official international language. For example, English is also the international language for business. According to NationMaster, if we look at GDP figures, the Anglosphere, or countries that have English as an official or de facto official language, accounts for $22.11 trillion dollars or 25% of the global gross domestic product. Further, this number doesn’t account for the other 70-some-odd countries where English is also co-official or de facto official, but this number proves that English is the language of business, and that English-speaking countries drive the global economy.
Aside from the fact that English dominates the world market, on a more personal and practical level, having English as an official international language would effectively end miscommunication between speakers of different languages and do away with the need for people to learn other languages or have to bother with translating. Besides, 56% of the internet is in English and almost 80% of all stored information is in English as well. Can you imagine how much easier scholarship or travel or business would be if we all just spoke English? Think of how much time and energy could be saved!
Why English Shouldn’t Be the Official Language of the World
Now, if you watch my channel or read my blog often, I hope you have picked up on the fact that I don’t actually believe that English should be the official international language. Sure, there are some pretty compelling reasons, but I sure as heck wouldn’t waste so much time learning and talking about foreign languages if I didn’t see the value in doing so.
So, why don’t I think that English should be the official international language?
First of all, if you know anything about history, you know that empires rise and empires fall. If we look back at Europe in the year 117 CE, we see the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. During that time, large groups of people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds spoke Latin either natively or as a second language. Fast forward 1900 years, and we can see that Latin is little more than a clerical language. It is essentially dead even though technically it evolved into the Romance languages we know today.
So, what does this have to do with English?
What I’m trying to say is that the Roman Empire once dominated a large chunk of the world, but it inevitably collapsed. One day, and I have no real reason for thinking this because I can’t see into the future, the Anglosphere or the dominance of the English language will probably end as well. And when it does, English will become obsolete and undesirable, and a new language will take its place, and humans hundreds or thousands of years from now will be having a similar discussion about the world’s new lingua franca.
Now, that is hardly a reason for why English can’t be the official international language today, but there are other reasons. I believe that neither English nor any other language for that matter should be the world’s official language because it would effectively end linguistic diversity and lead to huge amounts of language death. I know it’s easy to think that language death isn’t a big deal, but for me, language death isn’t just about a language ceasing to exist: I believe it is also about losing a culture and a unique way of thinking.
We know that language impacts the way we interpret and conceptualize the world, and we know that language and culture are very strongly linked. If English became the international language, we would see language death on a large scale, and to an extent we already are, and I think it is a terrible reality for people who will inevitably lose links to their identity and their past if they adopt an English-only attitude. Personally, I know that I lament the fact that I don’t speak Italian natively because my family abandoned teaching it to us kids in favour of us learning English, and I shudder to think what would have happened if Italian had died by the time I wanted to learn it.
Lastly, I also believe that English should not be the official world language because of its past. Now, I know I’m going to be labelled a snowflake and a social justice warrior and bleeding-heart liberal for saying this, but in my opinion, English’s colonial past effectively makes it the language of the oppressors as with many other European languages. The point I’m trying to make is that by dictating that English should be the official world language, we would just be continuing the ongoing legacy of colonialism by indirectly forcing people to abandon their native languages and ultimately parts of their culture to make it more convenient for those of us in positions of power.
Now, I don’t mean power in the sense of political power, I just mean that by having people in positions of power (i.e. English speakers) dictating to others (i.e. non-English speakers) that they must speak only English, we are no better than colonists who stole and killed and created a system that forbid the world’s Indigenous peoples from speaking and using their native tongues in the first place.
Whew, that got a little heavy.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Should there be an official international language? Should that language be English? Let me know in the comments below. Remember: this is a touchy topic for a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. Please be sensitive to that. Be a nice person.