Dennis Baron at Oxford University Press Blog explains how English has become the global lingua franca:
There are anywhere from 350 to 500 million native English speakers, and up to 1 billion more who use it as a second or additional language to some extent. That’s 20% of the world’s 6.9 billion people. There are close to 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, but according to Ethnologue, 39% of the Earth’s people speak one of eight brand-name languages: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, and Russian (Japanese is number 9). Of these, only English can claim global dominance.
It pays to be an American. In most countries, students learn English as a second language so they can talk to us. In large part this is because of our outright refusal to learn a second language ourselves.
I can’t judge my fellow citizens. I took two years of Spanish in high school, promptly forgot it all, then took French and German in graduate school and promptly forgot those as well. I only took the classes I did to pass requirements and today I am a hopelessly mono-lingual forty-something American.
I’m beyond hope. Anna, though, is not. She is in an elementary school with a substantial minority of bilingual children—speaking Spanish in the home and English outside. She’s also fortunate to attend a school that places a large emphasis on multilingualism, so much so that they bring a Chinese exchange student to America each year via the University of Oregon to teach the kids about Chinese language and culture.
To quote Baron again:
39% of the Earth’s people speak one of eight brand-name languages: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, and Russian.
By the time she graduates high school, there’s a good chance Anna will speak the first three, possibly fluently.
A big advantage—one that I never had. But no matter what she’ll have English to fall back on.