English is the native language of about 430 million people around the world, which makes English the third-biggest native language worldwide (only Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers). Estimates say that between 1 and 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English. That means that roughly one in six people speak English either as a native or a second language. This is only rivalled by the total number of Chinese speakers around the world, which may be similar or even greater (with a higher percentage of native speakers).
However, no one ever mentions Chinese as a lingua franca. Why not? The most logical explanation for this fact is that most Chinese speakers live in the same country, while English speakers live all over the world, thus making it easier to communicate across borders.
So is English the natural choice for a worldwide lingua franca? And, more importantly, is it truly a lingua franca?
The natural choice, yes. The British Empire brought their language with them as they expanded and colonised countries. It was the language of the ‘masters’ in a lot of countries for centuries. It was one of the languages of the Allies in World War II spoken by more than one of the allied and, ultimately, winning countries. The USA as a rising global superpower after World War II further accelerated the growing dominance of English in areas such as international relations, diplomacy, science, business, aviation, entertainment, radio, and seafaring.
The final rise of English as lingua franca began with the invention of the Internet as a worldwide communication network, though. The Internet was a result of the technological race between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War and was brought to life in the USA.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that English is the language that is most widely used on the Internet nowadays, even before Chinese, and far ahead of Spanish. Some 800 million users, that’s roughly 28.5% of all Internet users, communicate in English. It is also the language of information technology.
The rise of English as a lingua franca seems to be a logical consequence of past events. But what about accessibility?
The English language is not exactly easy to learn. Word roots come from all over the place (English has mostly Germanic, Latinate, and Gaelic word roots), the relation between spelling and pronunciation seems arbitrary more often than not, and English tenses are complex and difficult for a lot of ESL students.
Another problem in this context is the existence of numerous non-standard varieties of English. Some of them differ so much from Standard English that they are hard to understand even for native speakers of one of the ‘standard’ variants.
So for about one billion of today’s English speakers, learning the world’s lingua franca likely took quite some effort. Roughly five in six people don’t speak the world’s lingua franca at all, and even for those who do, communication with other English speakers might be very difficult.
These facts bring up the question why we call English a ‘lingua franca’ (in ‘plain’ English as much as ‘free language’) at all. Is it really a free language in the sense of giving people the freedom to communicate with each other?
Yes and no. For those who do speak English with some proficiency, it allows communication across borders and with a large variety of people from all over the world and with different native languages. Pronunciation and accent problems are negated by written communication, e.g. via Internet. Most mistakes may make it harder but not impossible to understand the meaning so that even a basic knowledge of the language is often enough to express basic needs and hold simple conversations.
On the other hand, the accessibility bar is too high in order to call English a truly free language. A lot of people don’t have access to any means of learning English, and are thus barred from the advantages of a lingua franca. For others, the language is just too hard to learn so that they never reach a level of proficiency high enough to communicate with others in everyday situations, let alone in professional situations.
So yes, English is a lingua franca—but only for about one sixth of the world’s population.
Theresa Travelstead, January 25, 2015
(This was a paper I wrote for university; not yet graded.)