28th October 2016 Tripoli, Libya
The Power of English
English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Chinese is number one for the number of native speakers, but with 400 million mother-tongue speakers and at least as many using it as a second language, English has become the world’s main communication tool.
How did a language brought to Britain by settlers from northern Germany become so widely spoken? Part of the reason is its flexibility and willingness to absorb new words from other parts of the world. We speak a melange of motley words of mongrel origin.
The language spoken by the Angles and Saxons 1,500 years ago was very different from the language we speak now. It has gone through massive changes. The invasion by the Normans in 1066 brought many French words of Latin and Greek origin. So we have sheep (Old English) and mutton (French).
Modern English evolved around 500 years ago when Shakespeare was writing. He invented hundreds of new words and phrases, many of which are in common use today. Words like ‘lonely’, ‘hurry’ and ‘majestic’ had not been used before. And well-known phrases like ‘wild goose chase’ and ‘a tower of strength’ first appeared in his plays.
In later years, English adopted words from Spanish, like guerrilla; from the Caribbean, like barbecue; and from India, like pyjamas. There are many words from Arabic too: coffee, cotton, sugar and algebra. It is this absorption capacity that makes English so rich and fascinating, capable of great poetry and elegance, but also open to puns, nuances and doubles entendres.
In the last few years, globalisation and the growth of the Internet has made English the lingua franca of business, aviation and even diplomacy. Most major multinational companies use English to ensure that all their offices in different countries can talk to each other. Pilots have to use English to communicate with air traffic controllers. And in Brussels, European diplomats negotiate with each other in English.
This growth has led to the development of a shortened, simpler English with a limited vocabulary of around 1,500 words (compared with over 600,000 in the Oxford English Dictionary).
Some people might lament the simplification of English. But if it helps people to communicate, it isn’t a problem.
The growth of English makes our language a valuable tool for soft power, ie enabling us to make friends and influence people, not through military might but through culture. Across the world, people want to study English to help them get on in their studies or in their careers. The importance of English will not diminish with Brexit.
This drive to learn gives native English speakers an advantage. And it is no surprise many students want to learn English from the British Council rather than other native speakers.
To serve this demand, the British Council works to create understanding between the people of the UK and other countries by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. The Council operates in 100 countries across the world in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Each year they reach over 20 million people face-to-face and more than 500 million people online, via broadcasts and publications.
In Libya, the Council works with universities and schools to promote English, including a range of examinations and qualifications. They have developed many innovative ways to promote English, for example through radio programmes, Facebook and Twitter. Their work goes beyond the language and includes outreach to communities through programmes such as Young Arab Voices that helps train young people to set up their own debate clubs, reinforcing their ability to discuss subjects of their own choosing in a mature and dignified manner.
Homer Simpson said: “English! Who needs that? I’m never going to England.” No, but for many people, English is the language of opportunity.