The extent to which the English Language has achieved global significance is phenomenal, in that no other language has ever been able to achieve such a status of linguistic eminence

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The extent to which the English Language has achieved global significance is phenomenal, in that no other language has ever been able to achieve such a status of linguistic eminence. According to Crystal (1997) a language achieves global status when it develops a special role that is recognised, either culturally or politically, in every country, across every continent of the world. He also signifies that a global language is not affected by the quantity of those who speak the language, but much more concerning who those people are, in that ‘without a strong power base, whether political, military or economic, no language can make progress as an international medium of communication.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:5) Throughout history, an international language becomes so for one principal reason; that being ‘the political power of its people.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:7)

It is important to look at the historical significance of English in its ascension to linguistic dominance and its current position as an international language. There are two primary facets in relation to this ascension, them being geographical-historical and socio-cultural aspects. The geographical-historical aspect determines how English reached its position of pre-eminence, whilst the socio-cultural aspect provides an explanation as to why the language remains in this position of power. Speakers of English throughout the world have come to be dependant on the language as a tool, in respect to politics, economy, communication, entertainment, the media and of course, education. (Crystal, D. 1997) The language therefore becomes a convenience for speakers, in which international domains can be accessed through the aforementioned lingua franca. Crystal (1997:25) states that the justification of having a lingua franca, that is; a common language, is that the language is able to ‘serve global human relations and needs.’ The fact that English is now represented in countries on every continent around the world, as either an official language or by having prestige within a county’s foreign language teaching system, provides reason for applying the term ‘global’ to the English language beyond doubt.

The spread of English beyond Europe and the British Isles is accredited to four centuries of colonialism and British imperialism, which led to English being spoken by over three hundred million people. (Leith, D. 1997) The first significant stride in the advancement of English towards its pre-eminence as a world language occurred during the early trade in the Atlantic. Leith (1997:182) articulates that by the year 1600, England had gained trading contacts across three continents, which retrospectively provided a powerful platform on which the English language was to flourish and become the globally dominant medium of communication that it is at present. Trading companies such as the Newfoundland fur trade, the ivory and gold trade on the western coast of Africa and the East India Company brought speakers of English into economic contact throughout the world. (Leith, D. 1997:182)

English and the English-based pidgins created in parts of West Africa, acted as lingua francas of common communication during the colonial period. These pidgins during the slave trade were the only means of communicating with other Africans. Eventually, pidgins became the first languages of African slaves’ children and grandchildren. ‘To operate as first languages, the functions of pidgins had to be elaborated, their structures amplified: they became creoles.’ (Leith, D. 1997:184) This evolution and expansion of the English language plays a significant role in its cultural history, in that the archetypal English culture was becoming diversified; allowing other cultures the opportunity, if not consciously, to submerge their societal mores into the core of the language.

Regarding the spread of the English language in relation to colonialism, the need for settlement in specific areas was analogous to the altering political, social and economic revolutionary. ‘English has become a world language because of its wide diffusion outside the British Isles, to all continents of the world, by trade, colonisation, and conquest.’ (Barber, C. 1993:234) The first permanent English colonisation settlement overseas dates from 1607, when colonists arrived in what was to be named Jamestown and Virginia, after James I and the ‘virgin Queen’ Elizabeth. (Crystal, D. 1997:26) In November 1620, the first group of Puritans, thirty-five members of the English Separatist Church, and sixty-seven other settlers arrived at Cape Cod Bay, and established settlement in what came to be named Plymouth, Massachusetts. The settlers were particularly diverse and dissimilar in age, with young infants to those in their fifties, with varied regional, social and work-related backgrounds. This diversity would have undoubtedly created a range of social attitudes and societal beliefs, as well as an array of regional accents and dialects within the settlement. With regards to the Puritan colonists, their movement occupied and encompassed both social and political constituents, which would therefore have had ecclesiastical influence on the English Language within the settlement. In looking back to the origins of Puritanism in the seventeenth century, the movement was a great contributor to the development of the English language. They showed preference to English rather than Latin and professed that English was a national language capable bringing together all English speakers. This is certainly the case in contemporary society, as English has become the global language, in effect: the lingua franca of communication that brings English speakers together. Furthermore, the language still maintains its association with religion and Catholicism to this day, which marks a cultural dynamic that has thus resisted change.

English settlements continued in North America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with settlements in the West Indies drawing competition from the Spanish, French and Dutch colonisers. Yet by the early nineteenth century, Britain had power over many of the Caribbean islands, including Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. (Barber, C. 1993:235) Britain’s ascendancy as a governing political power continued to expand, with colonies in the Indian subcontinent dating from the latter half of the eighteenth century, and also settlement in Australia after the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The American Revolution not only formed a new nation; it also divided the English Language into ‘two streams,’ producing deviation in the spelling or the lexical construction of words with the same semantic loading, for example, ‘theatre’ versus ‘theater.’ (Mencken, H, L. 1936) This deviation suggests that although America embraced the English Language, the need to be viewed as self-governing and independent is evident through language variation. It is credible that the English language established what was, during this period of significant cultural diversification and politic plight, ‘a medium which gave them access to common opportunity.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:31) Between the first American census in 1788 and 1950, the population had grown from 4 million to 150 million. According to Barber (1993), it is surely American political and economic power that accounts for the dominant position of English in the world today, in that America has ensured its global policy on English as a world language through both cultural and political history.

America’s economic presence and military might during the twentieth century have both established and maintained the English language’s global prominence: the media, progress in science and industry and Hollywood, have all been contributors to its ascension. Hollywood has had an effect on the world and its thought processes, both politically and culturally, and simultaneously; both negatively and positively, due to substantial worldwide exposure which has undoubtedly had a significant effect on the spread of English. Negatively, Hollywood appears to promote a biased and markedly americanised vision of the world as a whole, depicting an over-simplified view of international divergences, in which ‘stereotyped and negative images of Muslims, Russians, South Americans (…) are presented as the enemies of freedom and progress. (Web 4) With reference to history, it is suggested that Hollywood misrepresents authentic historical events, in ‘downplaying the contribution of other nations to allied victory,’ through mediums such as film and television. (Web 4) This representation further asserts American dominance and supremacy in relation to political and cultural means, which could account for the emergence of English as a global language. However, on the contradictory, Hollywood can also be viewed as far from ‘monolithically American,’ (Web 4) in that directors from diverse non-English language film cultures have introduced new cultural perspectives to Hollywood through both film and television effectively and successfully. This demonstrates that Hollywood is both accommodating of other cultures, as well as the transmission of those cultures through an English speaking medium, which would therefore create heightened exposure of the English language globally. Economically, Hollywood’s financial power and worldwide publicity allows domination and supremacy in globalised entertainment, whilst ensuring ‘cultural exports are classed as just another form of trade in international agreements, and to help it gain control over distribution networks abroad.’ (Web 4) This ‘control’ indisputably has an effect on English as a world language, as it in inevitable that non-speakers of English would want to gain knowledge of the language to thus enable themselves with the opportunity to experience the global phenomena that is Hollywood.

In retrospect to the expansion of British influence and political power with regards to colonisation, it ‘continued at an even greater rate during the nineteenth century.’ (Barber, C. 1993:235) Early in the century, British rule countermanded the Dutch in South Africa, and also established colonies in Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the world’s colonial powers competing for the African continent, a dispute which saw colonies established by Britain in western, eastern and southern Africa. English has been extremely influential in the aforementioned areas, producing many varieties of the language that is used for diverse purposes and in differing social contexts. Barber (1993) states that in colonies such as those in North America, Australia and New Zealand, settlers who had English as a native tongue outnumbered the original populace, and furthermore dominated them both economically and politically. The native languages therefore had infinitesimal influence on the settlers’ language, which allowed English to develop and expand in these colonies. As a contrast, in South Africa, the majority of the population speak a ‘Bantu language such as Zulu or Xhosa.’ (Barber, C. 1993:236) Speakers of Bantu languages outnumber English speakers on a ratio of one to three. (Barber, C. 1993:236) Notwithstanding this ratio, South African English has surprisingly resisted influence from Bantu languages and other languages of the country, and Barber assumes that the ‘long period of British domination and the consequent cultural prestige of English,’ (Barber, C. 1993: 237) are responsible for the opposition to change or influence. This demonstrates that even in areas where speakers of English were the minority, the language has the authoritative power to implement its position in society through both cultural and political history.

English as a second language (wherein it is used together with other local languages for communicative purposes between different language-groups within the community) has become prominent in many previously colonised areas, such as Singapore. During the colonisation of Singapore under British rule, the country’s population expanded considerably. Many ethnic groups from other colonies such as India and Ceylon settled in Singapore, as well as settlers from bordering areas, the largest group of migrants being from Southern China. (Web 1) According to the Singapore Census of the year 2000 of ‘resident population and ethnic group,’ the Singaporean population now consists of approximately 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 8% Indian, which consequently shows great diversity in ethnic origin; this diversity creating the need for bilingualism. (Web 2)

Bilingualism in Singapore shows the extent to which the English language has developed into a world language through cultural and political factors both historically and contemporary. English in Singapore is associated with economic and societal prestige; a lingua franca used as a common medium of communication in administrative and economic spheres. The languages spoken in Singapore are used in different social contexts, wherein, English is used in the educational and academic system as well as at home in familial setting. ‘At one time, Chinese was the principle medium of education, but, despite independence (1965), English-medium education has spread until it is now almost universal (…)’ (Barber, C. 1993:239) So as to not deny the speakers native cultural heritage, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are also taught in schools, and are used alongside English at home. Furthermore, Cantonese would be used to communicate with the older generation if they are monolingual in the aforesaid language. Speakers of Singaporean English are conscious of the functions of the language as a lingua franca in relation to economical and political facets; they observe English as a unifying factor that connects the community via socio-economical and political dynamics.

In Hong Kong, English is used alongside Cantonese; them both obtaining official language status. However, their purposes in terms of socio-constructive aspects differ accordingly. English is the language used in the legal system, education, commerce and industry and the media, yet common daily communication within society is spoken in Cantonese; the use of English for this purpose being found objectionable. Therefore, English is observed as a ‘language of power’ whilst Cantonese is the ‘language of solidarity and an expression of ethnicity.’ (Barber, C. 1993:239) Moreover, the Chinese community are aware of the influence that the English language bears in terms of political and economical authority around the globe. Yet, unlike Singaporean speakers of English; they decline to use the language in familial setting, so as to maintain their own identity and cultural legacy, differentiating the official languages in terms of formal and interpersonal purpose. Crystal (1997) states that Cantonese is the mother tongue of over 98% of the population, however estimates in 1992 suggested that over 25% of the population now have some competence in the English language. He also articulates that ‘there is incredible uncertainty surrounding the future role of English, after the 1997 transfer of power,’ ending 156 years under British control. (Crystal, D. 1997:51) Conversely, he further states in his 2003 second edition, that ‘patterns of use so far have shown little change,’ which furthermore demonstrates the standing power of English as a global medium of communication. (Crystal, D. 2003:59)

Crystal (1997), states that there is vast distinction in the motives for selecting a particular language as a preferred foreign language in any given country. These reasons incorporate historical conventions, political expediency, and the aspiration for commercial, cultural or technological contact. Early in the twentieth century, economic developments were operating on a global scale, ‘fostering the emergence of massive multinational organisations.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:8) As British political imperialism during the nineteenth century had allowed the English language to disperse globally, the growth and expansion of competitive industry and business, equalling international marketing and advertisement in the twentieth century, further elevated English into a position of secure governance. The development and expansion of English language as a global language has however caused controversy and an amalgamation of predicaments regarding whether ‘English should be retained as an official language,’ and whether the standard form of English or the local variety should be adopted in teaching. (Barber, C. 1993:241) A variety of factors have contributed to this reaction; them being ‘nationalist feeling, attachment to traditional culture, desire for advances in science and technology, and the conflicting needs for local and for international communication.’ (Barber, C. 1993:242) As an exemplar, Barber (1993) affirms that after India gained Independence in 1947; the inhabitants of the Northern regions of India were in favour of using Hindi as the official language of the country, whilst the Dravidian speaking Southern population favoured the preservation of English. Southerners were aware that ‘Hindi as the main language would give obvious economic and political advantages’ (Barber, C. 1993:242) to those in the North and sought to resist Hindi’s advancement as an official language for this reason.

In referring back to British colonisation, the impact of the East India Company in the early 1600’s, eventually produced a distinct variation of English: Indian English. In India, ‘English now has national and international functions that are both distinct and complementary. English has thus acquired a new power base and a new elitism.’(Kachru, B. 1986:12) Baldridge (2002) states that only 3% of India’s population speak English; those being the ‘individuals who lead India’s economic, industrial, professional, political, and societal life. ‘(Web 3) Within India, English serves as the language of the aforesaid domains of society, in which it carries an unyielding degree of prestige and stature, offering many linguistic advantages to those who speak the language.

Linguist Braj Kachru has suggested that we view the spread of English to global dominance as ‘three concentric circles.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:53) These circles show the way in which English has been acquired and the way in which it is being used in currently. The inner circle, applies to the countries in which English is the primary language, such as the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The outer section encompasses the earlier stages of the expansion of English in non-native locations, wherein English has become an official language or has assumed a position of importance in second language acquisition in countries such as Singapore and India. The expanding circle ‘involves those nations which recognise the importance of English as an international language, though they do not have a history of colonisation by members of the inner circle, not have they given English any special administrative status.’ (Crystal, D. 1997:54) The expanding circle includes Japan, China, Greece, Poland and a progressively rising number of other countries in which English is taught as a foreign language. The significance of the concentric circles is that they illustrate the divisions of how English has come to be a world language, through both historical aspects of colonisation and the political and cultural facets of the economic revolution.

Kachru (1986), states that assumptions regarding language and power arise from historical, political and economical facets; in that the power of a language is ultimately connected with societal control and supremacy. It is certainly exploitation and colonisation that has acted a vehicle in the principal expansion and spread of English, alongside cultural and political aspects that sustained its presence as a globally dominant medium of communication. As it stands, English is accountable for bringing together every continent of the world through the ideal of a lingua franca, governed by political factors. However, there are dangers that a global language can stimulate, consequently including the proposal of a monolingual class; indifferent in their approaches to other languages, the manipulation of a language at the expense of those who have no knowledge of it, and lastly, a global language could accelerate the eradication of minority languages by means of making them unnecessary. (Crystal, S. 1997:12) The English language has however, firmly secured its label as a ‘global’ language in contemporary society and in the foreseeable future.


Barber, C. (1993) The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge

University Press: Cambridge.

Crystal, D. (1997) English as a Global Language. Cambridge University Press:


Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language (2nd ed) Cambridge University

Press: Cambridge.

Kachru, B (1986) The Alchemy of English: The spread, functions, and models of non-

Native Englishes. Pergamon Press Inc: New York

Kachru, B. (1986c) ‘The Power and Politics of English.’ World Englishes, Vol. 5: No.

2-3: 121-140.

Leith, D. (1997) A Social History of English (2nd ed) Routledge: London.
Mencken, H, L. (1936) The American Language: An inquiry into the development of

English in the United States. AA Knopf: University of Michigan.


Web 1:

Title: Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish)

Author: Jeff Siegel (University of New England)

Last Modified: Not Known

Date Assessed: 10/11/08

Web 2:
Title: Key Indicators of the Resident Population (2000 Census)

Author: Singapore Government

Last Modified: 30th June 2007

Date Accessed: 10/11/08

Web 3:
Title: Linguistic and Social Characteristics of Indian English (Language in India)

Author: Jason Baldridge (M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D. & B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D. eds)

Last Modified: July 2002

Date Accessed: 11/11/08

Web 4:

Title: Hollywood’s Influence: Does Hollywood have a negative impact on the world?

Author: Alastair Endersby (UK)

Last Modified: 01/11/00

Date Accessed: 11/11/08

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