How English became the global language

Critics blame the death of some languages on the rise of English, but the reasons are complex

How did English become the world’s language? This amazing story is told by historian David Northrup in his fascinating new book, How English Became The Global Language (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013).

David Northrup is a retired professor of history at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He was educated at Fordham University and the University of California, Los Angeles.  He is the author of many books, such as Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922 (1995); Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850 (2009), and The Atlantic Slave Trade (2010). He is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook on the Atlantic World, 1450-1820 (2009) and the Oxford History of the British Empire (1988, 2004).

Northrup looks at the globalisation of English through an objective historical lens.  ‘This is a pragmatic study’, he writes, ‘not an ideological one.  Its concern is to explain why things happen, not to score points off them.  This is neither a celebration of global English and globalisation nor a manifesto against their spread’.

Northrup emphasises that his book is ‘not about whether the spread of English is good or bad, but about how it became the global language’.  The global rise of English is a complex topic, and it deserves the kind of careful treatment found in Northrup’s exceptional book.  It will light the path for future studies of global English.  David Northrup discusses his new book in this exclusive interview.


What was the inspiration for your new book?

The inspiration came primarily from two experiences. First, teaching English as a second language in a rural secondary school in Nigeria in the 1960s taught me that choices by Nigerians were more important than those made by British colonial authorities. At independence, nationalist leaders made English the language of education; millions of Nigerian students have ratified that choice. More recently, my experience teaching a university-level course on the history of globalisation taught me that, while world trade and finance are at the heart of that process, the cultural side of globalisation - the spread of world religions, knowledge, and technology, and languages - is no less important and often more interesting.


When did English become the world’s first global language?

It’s a short story with a long preface. It took many centuries for English to gain dominance in the British Isles. It took a few more centuries for the language to establish itself in North America and in parts of the West Indies and then to gain a foothold in British and American colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. By the 1950s the military, economic, and scientific leadership of Anglophone countries had made English a leading international language. But only after 1990 did a series of events make English the first global language. Today more and more, people around the world are learning English as a second [or third] language.


How did the collapse of the Soviet Union accelerate the globalisation of English?

Young Eastern Europeans celebrated their liberation from Soviet hegemony by throwing away the Russian language books they had been compelled to use in school. Instead, by the end of the 1990s, the majority of secondary students in Eastern Europe were studying English. When most Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, their preferences pushed English ahead of French for day-to-day communication in the EU.


Why do some critics charge that English is a ‘killer language’?

The number of languages spoken around the world has fallen as populations have grown and the world has become more interconnected. Critics blame the death of some languages on the rise of English as a global language, but the reasons are more complex. It is true that the growth of English as a national language in Britain, North America, and other lands came at the expense of other languages, but the recent success of English as the global lingua franca has been different. Asians or Africans who add English as a second or third language do not abandon their mother tongues. Rather the extinction of small languages occurs because new generations choose to use a more popular local or regional language.


Why did Esperanto fail to become a global language?

Since its launch in 1887, Esperanto has become the most successful artificial language ever devised. Easy to learn and supported by many influential organisations, Esperanto nevertheless lagged behind other international languages during the fringes of the enormous growth of global interaction after 1945. Lacking a large core of native-speakers, Esperanto was unable to attract the constituencies that adopted English, such as scientists, diplomats, international businesspeople, and fiction writers [and readers].


How did English become ‘the international academic language’?

Higher education is expanding rapidly around the world and each year millions of students study abroad. To accommodate them universities in many countries teach many programmes in English, especially in science, diplomacy, business, and technology, fields in which English has a dominant position. Scores of new English-medium universities and programmes have also opened in recent years in the Middle East, China, and other parts of the world. The trend to teaching in English started in the EU, which encouraged students to study outside their countries of origin. Today the majority of international students come from China, India, and other parts of Asia.


How is English empowering youth around the world?

Until recently, fluency in English in non-English speaking countries was confined to business, military, and academic elites and those in tourism. Today young people around the world see mastery of English as the key to a successful future.  Chile, for example, has launched a programme in schools called ‘English Opens Doors’. In places like India, millions of underprivileged youth are eager to learn English so as to get a good job in call centres and the growing range of service industries. One of these, a new English-language publishing  services company called Newgen in Chennai, India, did the copyediting and layout for my book.

[Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia]

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