English, it goes without saying, is the world’s number one international language. It isn’t the one with the most native speakers – Mandarin and Spanish both have more – and it isn’t the only one either – other major languages of international communication besides Mandarin and Spanish include French, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Malay, Hindi, Swahili, and Japanese. But it does have the largest number of speakers altogether (although that’s something that is very difficult to measure accurately), and it is the most influential one.

But have you ever thought why? It hasn’t always been that way. For many centuries there wasn’t really a lot of international communication in Europe. When there was, Latin was the main language used, at first because of the Roman Empire and then later the Church, which had a near-monopoly on education and literacy1 and thus also on knowledge. Even now scientific disciplines such as botany, zoology, and anatomy use Latin. Later still, French became the language of diplomacy and German became important in scientific publishing. So, what changed?
Some people like to argue that English has become so universal because of its linguistic qualities. It’s beautiful, they say. Well, I guess most people think their native language is beautiful, so that’s probably not a very good reason.
A native speaker of Polish recently wrote that everyone who speaks English sounds like a duck, and a speaker of Armenian said it sounds as if they have a mouth full of stones.
English has a very rich vocabulary, people claim2. But much of that is probably a result of its global character rather than a reason for it. English is easy, they say. That’s just nonsense.
There is no such thing as an easy language. Even highly educated people only know a fraction of the words in their native language. Yes, there’s plenty of simple English around, but again, I’d say that’s a result of the global dominance of English rather than a reason. But I would agree that starting English is easy; you don’t need to dig deep grammatical foundations in the way you would in Czech, Slovak, or Hungarian, for example.
The real reasons start with the British Empire, which exported English all over the world and made it a powerful language for education, administration, and trade in (and between) many countries. The decline of the Empire in the twentieth century happened at the same time as the rise of the USA as the biggest global military, economic, and cultural superpower. English became the dominant language for science and technology, print publishing, films, TV programmes, popular music, computer games, and other cultural products.
Technologies such as radio, TV, personal computers, and, later, the internet and social media helped to extend its influence still further and make it ‘cool.’ The massive recent trend towards globalisation has also had a big influence. Taken together, all these have led to a seemingly unstoppable snowball effect.
Before 1989, English was definitely not so visible here. It was a ‘capitalist language’ and therefore bad. Fast forward to 2022 and English has become one of the things pretty much every educated young person expects to have in their portfolio of skills. It’s also becoming more and more part of the Slovak and Czech languages. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is an issue for discussion, but one thing is for sure: English is truly everywhere.
And I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Take your phone and capture the presence of English where you live. Share your findings with your classmates.
What are your views on the presence of English in your life?

Simon Gill

Vocabulary: 1 gramotnosť – gramotnost; 2 tvrdiť – tvrdit