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What makes English a lingua franca?

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jul 20, 2015 12:00:00 AM

You probably know that not everyone speaks English. Still, English has become the closest thing we currently have to a global lingua franca (sorry, Esperanto!). But have you ever wondered why?

There are several languages that are more widely spoken than English, including Hindi, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. And yet, those aren’t the ones people are using to connect internationally. Here’s why our language has become a lingua franca – and why, despite these other languages having more native speakers, it seems like it will stay that way for a long time:

– A firm foothold. It used to be said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” In its 19 th and early 20 th century heyday, Great Britain had colonies or territories on every continent (yup, even Antarctica). Countries with a British colonial heritage have English firmly anchored among their local languages. This, many experts explain, is one of the reasons English has been so readily and easily adopted around our modern world – in a lot of cases, it’s already been there for a while.

-Strong ties with technology. By a happy coincidence (if it’s your native language), the pioneers of computer programming mostly spoke or used English. The top ten programming languages are based in English — and even for non-programmers, it holds heavy sway: 56% of all online content is in English. The very vocabulary we use to talk about technology is often heavily Anglophone-influenced as well; as this TIME article points out, many languages simply adopt English tech words, rather than create their own terms.

A neutral language. But English’s lingua franca status isn’t just due to history and circumstance; being pretty easy to learn and use goes a long way, as well. One of the biggies, especially when it comes to international relations, is that English is what’s called a “neutral language”. We don’t have gendered nouns. We don’t have pronouns or verb forms that suggest a person’s age, status, or anything else for that matter. And so, it’s much easier to communicate without any misunderstandings or snafus.

– (Pretty) easy. As languages go, English is awfully flexible. Variant or compound words can often be instantaneously created and understood. Nouns can be used as verbs, and vice-versa. Our grammar is relatively simple compared to other languages (special shout out to verb conjugation!). Whole sentences are often at least somewhat comprehensible to native speakers, even if their words aren’t in the correct order. (If I write: “I cinema going movie see,” okay, that’s a mess. But I bet you know what I was trying to say.) Add to this the fact that we use the Roman alphabet, rather than one with thousands of characters, and our words don’t (usually) contain diacritical marks, and English seems like a breeze compared to so many other languages (not that learning it is effortless, of course).

– Pop culture. As if all this weren’t enough, the major influence of Anglophone music, TV series, websites, and movies means that people are often exposed to English even when they’re just hanging out and having fun.

With all of these advantages, it seems like English was destined to become a global language. But history has shown that lingua francas come and go. Will English hold tight to its international role, or will a new language someday take its place?

by Alysa Salzberg

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