In part 2 of this blog series, I looked at the idea of a universal language, Esperanto, created specifically for the purpose of uniting people from different language backgrounds. But in reality, the idea of creating a universal language and the reality of getting people worldwide to learn and use it are two different things. Perhaps English is already on its way to fulfilling our global language needs?
Part 3: English – the lingua franca of world transport
It is now easier for two nations speaking different languages to come together. In places where multiple languages are spoken, such as transport terminals or tourist attractions, signs are often displayed in two languages. If you don’t know the native country’s writing system, or language, there is always an assumption that you will know the second language option, or at least enough to navigate your way around. English is almost always one of these languages, but why is it assumed to be the world’s second language? English is not the easiest language to learn, yet it is generally considered to be worldly known.
“English seems to be the ‘lingua franca’ in the world of passenger flying” – Per Mollerup (from, the book, Wayfinding: A Guide to Environmental Signage Principles & Practice). A lingua franca is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues. However, English wasn’t always the lingua franca of the world. Languages used for cross-cultural communication have changed throughout history, depending on areas of trade and exploration. In the 1600s Dutch was widely spoken due to the trade of the Dutch East Indies Company. Now English is spoken due to the combined spread of tourism and an increase in technology worldwide.
There are more than 750 million speakers of English as a foreign language worldwide, states the British Council’s FAQ for the English language. Therefore, it makes sense for English to be the second language of the world, doesn’t it? English has developed a cultural hegemony or dominance over other languages. Which is great if English is your first language! “English speaking countries have the benefit of the cultural dominance of the English language.” (Information Design Journal V10, 2001) Interestingly, speakers of English as a second language more than likely outnumber those who speak it as a first language. However, there are a lot more native speakers of Mandarin Chinese in the world, than there are of English – nearly 2 billion people speak Mandarin. The difference is that Mandarin is not spoken by so many outside of China – China is afterall a big country.
It is believed that a quarter of the world’s population can speak English, not fluently, but to some level of competence. How long will it be before a quarter of the world’s population becomes a third or even half?
Look out next week for part 4 of the series.