The English language has spread around the world so dramatically since the Second World War that there are now more non-native English speakers than native English speakers. The number of English speakers has risen from 400 million to 1.5 billion over the past 70 years. English dominates many conversations between speakers of other languages, simply because it is the only language many people have in common. But will English remain as important after Brexit?
Will French become dominant again?
Before 1990, the main language of the European Union was French. Since the 1990s, English has risen in importance to become the main language of EU discourse. But after Brexit, will English become less important?
The UK nominated English to be the main language in EU affairs, but no other state followed suit. Even Ireland voted for Gaelic instead. The EU will be under no obligation to provide English language translations of important documents after Brexit.
The importance of non-native English speakers
Will this mean that English will stop being the dominant language of Europe and of the world? Probably not. At least not for a few hundred years. This is because there is such a strong knowledge of English and learning effort of the language among non-native speakers.
So does this mean that there are some intrinsic properties of the English language that make it ideal for expressing important ideas and nuances? Of course not. The English language is the dominant global language simply due to reasons of history and politics.
Political and historical reasons for the dominance of English
Throughout the 19th century, the UK was a powerful force internationally and during the 20th century that power has been wielded by the United States. Both nations speak English and so the English language has grown to be dominant across the world.
English is no more adaptable or well-designed than other languages. All languages have the ability to express nuances and complex ideas. If a language does not have a word of its own to express a particular thought, speakers will either invent a new word or borrow it from another language.
No country has ‘ownership’ of the English language
In the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined English as ‘the language of England’. But this is no longer true. Speakers from many other countries use English in their own ways, borrowing from it and changing it. This is the nature of language. The UK no longer has any ‘ownership’ over the English language.
English is a global language and will continue to change and grow as it is used by the whole world.
Brexit will not stop the spread of English and it will not stop its dominance in international communication for the next hundred or so years.
Is the English language in decline across the internet?
However, the dominance of English has slowed down and one area where it is most apparent is on the internet. As the chart below shows, Chinese and Korean languages are growing in common usage across the internet and English language use is decreasing.
As more and more people start using the internet across the world, the dominance of the English language is decreasing. It seems inevitable that English will decline in importance across the world as its old imperial power fades.
What do you think?
Will Brexit stop the dominance of English in Europe?
Will English continue to be spoken around the world or will it be replaced in the future by a different language? Or a new language?
How long will the dominance of English last?