The population of Britain is only about 61 million. But throughout the world English is spoken by over 700 million people. About 350 million people speak English as their first or native language in countries such as the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
A further 300 million use English as a second or official language in over 60 countries usually when doing business, or when completing official documents and forms. It is estimated that at least a billion people throughout the world use English.
There are over 3000 languages in the world. So why has English become so widely spoken?
From about 1600 explorers, adventurers, settlers and soldiers went out from Britain to found settlements and colonies overseas. They took the English language with them. At the height of their power, during the 19Ih century, the British could claim that the sun never set on their Empire. Today almost all the countries of the old Empire have become independent. However, most of them are now members of the Commonwealth of Nations, and English continues to be an important language for them. At the same time, England was one of the most active trading countries in world. Traders in other countries found it beneficial to learn English to develop trade links and do business with the British.
After the Second World War the United States became what Britain had been in the 19'h century: politically and economically the most powerful nation in the world. As its power spread, so the English language spread. English replaced German as the dominant language of science Nobel Prize laureates during the second half of the 20th century. Finally, with the development of computer technology and the explosion of information, English truly became a global language.
We can distinguish three major periods in the evolution of English:
The first, called Old English, covers the period from the beginning of the language to about 1100.
During the Old English period, most additions to the English vocabulary were based on native English words. Latin was the most influential of foreign languages. The Scandinavian languages also influenced the English vocabulary.
The second, called Middle English, covers the period from 1100 to 1500. This period was marked by a great extension of foreign influence on English. The Norman Conquest in 1066 made English for a time a language of only secondary importance. Many English words were borrowed from French.
The third, called Modern English, covers the period from 1500 to the present. It derives much of its learned vocabulary from Latin and Greek. English has also borrowed words from nearly all the languages of Europe.
English occupies an important position. It is the main foreign language taught within most school systems worldwide, many newspapers are published in English and it is the language of much radio and television broadcasting. English is a global language for doing business. In some industries, such as the airline and shipping industries, English is the official standard language. Therefore, an excellent command of English is required for key jobs, such as air traffic controller or ship captain. In addition, English has emerged as a major language for finance and the stock markets around the world. People wishing to do business globally need to have a good command of spoken English. The ability to clearly write in English is also key, as many forms of business communication, from emails to presentations and marketing to important business contracts, are written in English.
It is the language of science, technology and medicine, and it is estimated that two-thirds of all scientific papers today are first published English. It is the language of diplomacy and sport; it is one of six official languages of the United Nations and the language used by the International Olympic Committee. International pop culture and advertising are also dominated by English.
English has appeared as one of the major languages for doing business on the Internet. A website written in English can attract many customers and enable even small business owners in remote villages to sell items to people around the world. Well-written product and service descriptions in English are key for attracting new customers and keeping them up to date on any new product offerings. 70% of the world's mail is written in English, 80% of all information in electronic retrieval systems is stored in English.