HOW ENGLISH BECAME
THE GLOBAL LANGUAGE
More people are trying to learn English than any other language in the world. English
is the language of political negotiations and international business. It has become the
international language of science and medicine. International treaties say passenger
airplane pilots must speak English.
English is the major foreign language taught in most schools in South America and
Europe. School children in the Philippines and Japan begin learning English at an
early age. English is the official language of more than seventy-five countries
including Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.
In countries where many different languages are spoken, English is often used as an
official language to help people communicate. India is good example. English is the
common language in this country where at least twenty-four languages are spoken
by more than one million people.
Where did the English language come from? Why has it become so popular? To
answer these questions, we must travel back in time about five thousand years to an
area north of the Black Sea in southeastern Europe.
Experts say the people in that area spoke a language called Proto-Indo-European.
That language is no longer spoken. Researchers do not really know what it sounded
Yet, Proto-Indo-European is believed to be the ancestor of most European languages.
These include the languages that became ancient Greek, ancient German and the
Latin disappeared as a spoken language. Yet it left behind three great languages that
became modern Spanish, French and Italian. Ancient German became Dutch, Danish,
German, Norwegian, Swedish and one of the languages that developed into English.
The English language is a result of the invasions of the island of Britain over many
hundreds of years. The invaders lived along the northern coast of Europe.
The first invasions were by a people called Angles about one thousand five hundred
years ago. The Angles were a German tribe who crossed the English Channel. Later
two more groups crossed to Britain. They were the Saxons and the Jutes.
These groups found a people called the Celts, who had lived in Britain for many
thousands of years. The Celts and the invaders fought.
After a while, most of the Celts were killed, or made slaves. Some escaped to live in
the area that became Wales. Through the years, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes mixed
their different languages. The result is what is called Anglo-Saxon or Old English.
Old English is extremely difficult to understand. Only a few experts can read this
earliest form of English.
Several written works have survived from the Old English period. Perhaps the most
famous is called Beowulf. It is the oldest known English poem. Experts say it was
written in Britain more than one thousand years ago. The name of the person who
wrote it is not known.
Beowulf is the story of a great king who fought against monsters. He was a good
king, well-liked by his people. A new book by Seamus Heaney tells this ancient story
in modern English.
Listen as Warren Scheer reads the beginning of this ancient story.
The next great invasion of Britain came from the far north beginning about one
thousand one hundred years ago. Fierce people called Vikings raided the coast areas
of Britain. The Vikings came from Denmark, Norway and other northern countries.
They were looking to capture trade goods and slaves and take away anything of
In some areas, the Vikings became so powerful they built temporary bases. These
temporary bases sometimes became permanent. Later, many Vikings stayed in
Britain. Many English words used today come from these ancient Vikings. Words like
“sky,” “leg,” “skull,” “egg,” “crawl,” “lift” and “take” are from the old languages of
the far northern countries.
The next invasion of Britain took place more than nine hundred years ago, in ten
sixty-six. History experts call this invasion the Norman Conquest. William the
Conqueror led it.
The Normans were a French-speaking people from Normandy in the north of France.
They became the new rulers of Britain. These new rulers spoke only French for
several hundred years. It was the most important language in the world at that time.
It was the language of educated people. But the common people of Britain still spoke
Old English took many words from the Norman French. Some of these include
“damage,” “prison,” and “marriage.” Most English words that describe law and
government come from Norman French. Words such as “jury,” “parliament,” and
The French language used by the Norman rulers greatly changed the way English was
spoken by eight hundred years ago. English became what language experts call
Middle English. As time passed, the ruling Normans no longer spoke true French.
Their language had become a mix of French and Middle English.
Middle English sounds like modern English. But it is very difficult to understand now.
Many written works from this period have survived. Perhaps the most famous was
written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet who lived in London and died there in fourteen
hundred. Chaucer’s most famous work is “The Canterbury Tales,” written more than
six hundred years ago.
“The Canterbury Tales” is a collection of poems about different people traveling to
the town of Canterbury. Listen for a few moments as Warren Scheer reads the
beginning of Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales.”
Now listen as Mister Scheer reads the same sentences again, but this time in Modern
English language experts say Geoffrey Chaucer was the first important writer to use
the English language. They also agree that Chaucer’s great Middle English poem gives
us a clear picture of the people of his time.
Some of the people described in “The Canterbury Tales” are wise and brave; some
are stupid and foolish. Some believe they are extremely important. Some are very
nice, others are mean. But they all still seem real.
The history of the English language continues as Middle English becomes Modern
English, which is spoken today. That will be our story next time.
Some people suggest that English has become ubiquitous because it is “easy to
learn” or especially flexible, but a glance backwards suggests that this is irrelevant.
Despite a devilishly complex case system, Latin was Europe’s most influential
language for over a thousand years (and its descendent are still going strong). People
learned Latin then for the same reasons they learn English now: to get ahead in life
and have access to knowledge. Yet now Latin is only spoken by priests and scholars.
Languages and borders change over time, but English is likely to remain the world’s
number one language during our lifetimes.
People often talk about English as a global language or lingua franca. With more than
350 million people around the world speaking English as a first language and more
than 430 million speaking it as a second language, there are English speakers in most
countries around the world. Why is English so popular, though? And why has it
become a global language?
People often call English the international language of business, and it’s increasingly
true as international trade expands every year, bringing new countries into contact.
Many of the best MBA programs are taught in English, so speaking it well can put you
in a position to get the best training and credentials. Most multinational companies
require a certain degree of English proficiency from potential employees so in order
to get a position with a top company, more and people are learning English.
If your ambitions lie in science or medicine, you can’t neglect English either. Much of
the technical terminology is based on English words, and if you want to learn about
the latest developments and discoveries from around the world, you’ll read about
them in journals and research reports published in English, no matter whether the
scientists who wrote them are from China or Norway. And, of course, with good
conversational English, you’ll be able to network and make important contacts at
conferences and seminars.
English also opens doors in the academic world. Of course, if the best program in
your field is in an English-speaking country, English will give you the opportunity to
study with the top scholars. Western universities are attracting more and more
visiting scholars, students and professors from all around the world, and their
common working language is English. As well as studying and teaching, attending
international conferences and publishing in foreign journals are some of the key
steps to success in academia. In order to speak at these conferences or publish in
these journals, excellent English is essential.
Journalists and writers around the world are finding a good command of English to
be an increasingly useful skill. Even if you’re writing your articles and doing
interviews in your own language, with good English you can get background material
from international wire services and papers and magazines from around the world.
You can interview foreign businessmen, diplomats and maybe even get sent to cover
overseas stories. Good English skills mean that you are not reliant on translators and
can work faster and more accurately with English information sources.
If you want a career in travel, English is absolutely essential. As the international
language of aviation, pilots and cabin crew all need to speak English. Even if you’re
not up in the air, speaking English accurately will ensure you are able to
communicate with clients and suppliers all over the world.
So, what’s stopping you from learning this global language? With all the resources
available on the internet and so many other English speakers around the world to
practice with, there’s never been a better time to start learning English. Pick up a
book, learn a few words, or even start a course today and take your first steps
towards becoming one of nearly 800 million English speakers in the world.
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language? - ESL language studies abroad. [online] ESL language studies
abroad. Available at: https://blog.esl-languages.com/blog/learn-
languages/english/english-language-global-number-one/ [Accessed 17 Oct.
3. VOA. (2017). Where Did the English Language Come From?. [online] Available
from/1571948.html [Accessed 17 Oct. 2017].