English is the World’s Second Language

Map of World Languages

Graphic: Study Global

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.

One thought on “English is the World’s Second Language

  1. Here in ireland, Irish is supposed to be the official language of the state, with english described as acceptable alternative language. In practice early everyone speaks English, with maybe less than 150,000 chosing Irish as the first language.

    At school, in additon to learning Irish and English by compulsion, you can choose to learn a European language such as French or German. Now that is changing and a lot of schools are talking about ofering Chinese as the third language option – that shows you where we are heading.


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