English as today’s lingua franca – Past and future

It’s hard to argue with the fact that today English is the lingua franca of our globalised planet. Not only is English  the predominant language of communication over the net, it is also the most common second language used by non-native English speakers.  Besides, the widespread use of the Internet as a language instruction tool has reinforced the strength of the English language teaching industry.  Two billion people are expected to have officially enrolled to learn the language in the current decade leading up to 2015.

In this post, I’m not going to get into the vested interests that keep this industry one of the most successful albeit overpriced service industries in the world today. Amorey Gethin has some interesting thoughts on that you can read here. Instead, I want to explore how we came to be where we are today.

The Phone Box

Spreading the imperialist love

The turbulent decade of the 1930s presented English to the world as a benevolent cultural tool against the fascist ideologies spreading in Europe. The ‘British Council for Relations with Other Countries’ was born in 1934 to ‘assist the largest number possible to appreciate fully the glories of our literatures, our contribution to the arts and sciences, and our pre-eminent contribution to political practice’ by’ promoting the study of our language abroad’[1]But, as the same British Minister of Information argued, which country would justify spending public money on cultural propaganda unless it had also a political or commercial significance?[2]

In line with the general move from colonialism to development aid that took place after the Second World War, the British Council coulored its ‘golden egg’ – the English language – with a tint of development aid and shifted its emphasis from ‘cultural’ to ‘educational’ and from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries. The commercial agenda continued to be evident.  The 1968-69 report of the British Council welcomes the furthering of English as the language of international commercial promotion since it opened ‘the world more readily to ’its ‘salesmen’.  The Council admitted in the same report that ‘there is a hidden sales element in every English teacher, book, magazine, film strip and television program sent overseas’. [3]

The United States stepped its international influence during the post-war era and consolidated its power through a vast array of political, economic, academic and cultural institutions which contributed to the global spread of English, American ideology and capitalism.

English consolidates here its position as leader of the modernising project, which divided the world into “developed and undeveloped nations”. And at the same time, English had become a commercial enterprise of incomparable dimensions. According to a study for the Economist Intelligence Unit (McCallen, 1989) it is estimated that the world market for  EFL/ESL training in 1988, not including expenditure by public authorities, was worth around £ 6.25 billion . Of this figure, just over £ 1 billion was accounted for by the British market, £2 billion by the North American market, another £2 billion by Australasia and the Far East and £ 1 billion by Europe. [4] Clearly, the whole emphasis on language interaction and on language as communication was essentially mercantile. Furthermore, with the growing field of English for Specific Purposes, English teaching consolidated its position as a service industry, providing English services for a range of specialised areas. White stated that ‘we are like ‘corporations’ which on the basis of certain management decisions produce a service which we hope will be purchased by many and which will please all buyers. We advertise the product[…], we hire personnel to deliver the project[…], and we build and administer the locations where the product changes hands.” [5] 

English varieties blooming everywhere

 It may not come as a surprise then, before the magnitude of the figures disclosed above and the well orchestrated discourse that accompanies the English language and its teaching, that numerous circles in the so-called ‘native countries’ vehemently oppose the acknowledgement of the many varieties of English burgeoning everywhere. When former colonies obtained their independence, these nations were left with a legacy of either bilingual or ‘potentially’ bilingual populations.

Technological advancements and the unprecedented role of mass communication lead to the numbers of non-native speakers of English surpassing the numbers of native speakers[6].  In 1968, before the vast number of ‘heretical’ forms of the English language which were developing, Clifford Prator[7] argued that the acceptance and encouragement of local varieties of English by the British was detrimental to global communication. Soon this position found various inheritors, Professor Randolph Quirk, amongst them.  He argued for the unquestionable need and desirability of a global standard.

The underlying ideology in both scholars, although perhaps purely academic, reflects the market forces behind the spread of Britain’s ‘golden egg’.   Quirk felt that the interest in the new varieties of English was ‘out of hand and has started blinding both teachers and taught to the central linguistic structure from which the varieties might be seen as varying.”  [8]  Quirk  penalised the anti-standard ethos for having exported contempt for standards   to the countries where English was considered a Foreign and a Second Language (EFL and ESL). A single monochrome standard that looks as good on paper as it sounds in speech is sufficient – and indeed marketable – for  “ the relatively narrow range of purposes for which the non-native needs to use English (even in ESL countries)”[9].   Ethnocentric chauvinism disregards the organic complexity in the functional range, use and purpose for which English is employed in the countries where English is used both international and intra-nationally.

The future of English

As mentioned in our introduction, English is today considered instrumental as an international means of communication, both in government and private sectors. But demand for teaching is sure to drop as children already study it when they learn to read and write and more universities across the world choose to teach in the language.

Besides, the fact that more people can speak English is not necessarily a good thing for native speakers of English who cannot speak other languages as well.

I personally feel that in decades to come, far from being dominated by English, the world will become more multilingual. And languages like Chinese, Arabic and Spanish will become more popular and gain more prominence in the future.

What are your thoughts on that?


[1] Quoted in White, AJS, 1965, The British Council: the first twenty five years 1935-1959, London: British Council.

[2] Quoted in Pennycook, A., Ibid, p. 148.

[3] British Council, 1968-69, Annual Report,  London: The British Council, pp. 10-11)

[4] McCallen, B., 1989, English as a world commodity. The international market for training in English as a foreign language. London: The Economist Intelligence Unit.

[5] White, R., 1987, ‘Managing Innovation’, ELT Journal  41 (3), p. 221.

[6] English is now  ‘in daily use not by seven million people but by seven hundred million  – and only half of them native speakers of the language.’ Quirk, R., The English Language in a Global Context, in  Quirk, R. & Widdowson, H.G.,(eds.)  1984.  English in the World,, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Prator, C., 1968, The British Heresy in TESL’, in Joshua A. Fishman, Charles A. Ferguson and Jyotirindra Das Gupta (eds.) Language Problems in Developing Nations, New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[8] Quirk, R., The English Language in a Global Context, in  Quirk, R. & Widdowson, H.G.,(eds.)  1984.     English in the World,, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 6.

[9] Ibid.

[10]    Pakir, A., The Status of English and the Question of ‘Standard’ in Singapore: A Sociolinguistic Perspective, in Tickoo, M.L. (ed.), 1991, Languages & Standards: Issues, Attitudes, Case Studies, Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, 111.


4 thoughts on “English as today’s lingua franca – Past and future

  1. Hi Teresa… I’ve been finding your thoughts and posts really interesting and I think it’s true that we’re moving towards a more multilingual world…perhaps you’ve come across a book that I found really interesting ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman, an exploration of exile and migration and life in a new language, I highly recommend it…

    • Thank you,dogsinnercity, for your positive feedback.Yes, diversity is such a positive asset, we should really learn to come to terms with it and nurture it.And thanks for the recommendation. I did read Eva Hoffman’s story a few years ago, I should certainly give it another read, and although many of us have migration, identity and assimilation experiences nothing compares to the postwar stories we hear and read.

  2. This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your magnificent
    post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

    • Daniel, thank you very much for your comment, I really appreciate your feedback and support. Sadly, the one thing I have against me at the moment is time, and it´s getting harder to commit to regular updates and posts but I still do try to have my say whether in DGAT or my other blog, No-mad… Wherever it is, I look forward talking to you further. Thanks a lot, Teresa

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