Lingua Franca – Why English is the Global Language
Picture an English speaker.
What image pops into your mind?
An American shop owner, perhaps? An Australian teenager, Canadian mother, or British businessman?
Of course, these are all valid examples of native English speakers. Replicating these accents is the ultimate aim of many English learners. There is considerable prestige in achieving a flawless British or American accent and dialect.
However, there are millions of citizens who speak fluent English as a second language, who use it just as much as ‘native’ speakers – every day, in fact.
These groups speak and understand English to an exceptional level, but are rarely considered to be native speakers because their dialects contain grammar and vocabulary different to ‘conventional’ Anglosphere English.
The forms of English spoken in these countries are termed “World Englishes” by sociologists and education theorists.
Later in this article, we’ll take a closer look at Indian English and Singapore English. But first, let’s see how English exploded as a global lingua franca.
Why is English so Widely Spoken?
Over two billion people speak English as a first or second language. It is the most studied language in the world.
For the first time ever in history, more people speak English fluently as a second language than a native language.
The use of English exploded in the 20th century, thanks to many factors, including the breakup of the British Empire, the onset of globalization, and the United States’ perennial position as the world’s largest economy.
Because English was deemed vital for international economic success, it was taught in many countries as the primary second language. As a result, new, localized versions of English emerged as linguae francae in ethnically diverse regions, whether officially (India, Singapore) or unofficially (Malaysia, Israel).
English is widely spoken in these countries and, for all intents and purposes, the inhabitants are native English speakers: learning English from a young age, with extensive education and exposure to the language, and able to express themselves in any situation.
Differences Between World Englishes and Anglosphere English
The only differences between World English speakers and Anglosphere English speakers are:
- World English speakers use another language at home
- They have little or no emotional attachment to English: it is primarily a communication tool.
World English speakers often use localized grammar and vocabulary, which can put them at a disadvantage when competing with native English speakers. Anglosphere English – US, Canadian, British Englishes, and others – is the ‘gold standard’ that companies aspire to.
Little is taught about these ‘alternative’ World Englishes, even though they are the primary language for so many people.
Probably the most widely recognized World English, Indian English grew from the remnants of British rule in India.
A nation comprising many ethnic groups speaking a total of 22 distinct languages, India has always needed a lingua franca to allow groups to communicate with each other.
After independence in 1947, Hindi was designated as India’s original official language. English, which had had a colonial presence in India since the 1600s, was temporarily adopted as an additional official language, to be replaced by Hindi over time, gradually breaking India’s association with colonial rule.
However, with the rise of English as a global language in the 20th Century, India has now embraced English as a permanent fixture, associating it with economic progress instead of historical oppression.
Both English and Hindi are official languages in India to this day.
Young, educated Indians are now the primary speakers of English, and use it in education and work to communicate with Indians from other ethnic groups.
This has led to a new dialect of English in India, which is ‘nativized’ and influenced by the indigenous languages.
Some Examples of Indian English:
- Please do the needful. Meaning: to take care of something.
- English-knowing. Used to describe someone who speaks English.
- Convent-educated. Refers to someone who received their education in English
- I belong to Mumbai. Meaning: I am from Mumbai
- Please revert. Meaning: please report back with information.
Interestingly, Indian English has even influenced Anglosphere English.
The last example, ‘please revert’, is becoming more popular among native Anglosphere English speakers.
The mutual influence between Indian and Anglosphere Englishes supports the recognition of Indian English as a current and relevant form of the language, equal to the English spoken in the Anglosphere.
Like in India, Singapore’s ties to the English language have their roots in colonialism.
A former trading post of the British Empire, Singapore is now home to a populace rich in culture: with multiple ethnic groups and four official languages all congregated in a country half the size of London, a lingua franca makes communication simpler.
The Singaporean government strongly encouraged the day-to-day use of English throughout the 20th Century, believing that an English-speaking Singapore would be best able to compete with other large (mostly Anglophone) global economies.
Education in Singapore has been delivered solely in English since the 1980s, leading to high proficiency among the under-45s. The government’s visions of a strong economic Singapore came true: Singapore currently has the 34th highest GDP per capita in the world.
Most Singaporeans, however, speak one of three ethnic languages at home: Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. These influences lead to some interesting dialect features in Singaporean English:
- “Kopi” (coffee), borrowed from Malay.
Different word order, borrowed from various ethnic languages:
- “Go where take bag, ah?” (English: Where do I go to collect my luggage?)
In its strongest form, the Singapore dialect (Singlish) is almost unintelligible to native English speakers. Here are some examples:
- “There can sit” (English: You can sit over there.)
- “Catch no ball” (English: I do not understand)
These constructions are directly translated from ethnic languages.
In a formal setting, most educated Singaporeans would switch to standard English.
In this case, the main difference between Singapore English and Anglosphere English would be pronunciation: Singapore English has a unique, melodic tone, and a strong accent.
The Future of English
Since the 21st Century and the advent of the Internet, English has transformed from an indigenous, location-based language, and is instead becoming a global communication tool.
World Englishes, such as those in India and Singapore, appeared in response to global economic developments, not dissimilarly to how proto-German evolved into early English through geographic isolation.
World Englishes are simply versions of the language that adapted in response to altered conditions. With this in mind, World Englishes have an important role to play in the adventure of English.
These Englishes have facilitated globalization and improved access between the respective countries and the rest of the world. They are likely to have an ever-greater influence on English as we know it, shaping the English of the future.
In learning about the patchwork that is our English language, we welcome English speakers of all shapes, sizes, and accents, making sure each variant is valued equally.
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