How many people can speak English? Some experts estimate that 1.5 billion people – around one-quarter of the world’s population – can communicate reasonably well in English.
Never in recorded history has a language been as widely spoken as English is today. The reason why millions are learning it is simple: it is the language of international business and therefore the key to prosperity. It is not just that multinational companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Vodafone conduct their business in English; it is the language in which the Chinese speak to Brazilians and Germans to Indonesians.
David Graddol, the author of ‘English Next’, says it is tempting to view the story of English simply as a triumph for its native speakers in North America, Britain and Ireland, and Australasia – but that would be a mistake. Global English has entered a more complex phase, changing in ways that the English- speaking countries cannot control and might not like.
An important question one might ask is: whose English will it be in the future? Non-native speakers now outnumber native English speakers by three to one. The majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. According to David Graddol, many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English-speakers present. This is because native speakers are often poor at ensuring that they are understood in international discussions. They tend to think they need to avoid longer Latin-based words, but in fact comprehension problems are more often caused by their use of colloquial English, especially idioms, metaphors, and phrasal verbs. On one occasion, at an international student conference in Amsterdam, conducted in English, the only British representative was asked to be ‘less English’ so that the others could understand her.
rofessor Barbara Seidlhofer, Professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Vienna, records and transcribes spoken English interactions between speakers of the Language around the worLd. She says her team has noticed that non-native speakers are varying standard English grammar in several ways. Even the most competent speakers sometimes omit the ‘s’ in the third person singular. Many omit
definite and indefinite articles where they are required in standard English, or put them in where standard English does not use them.
Nouns that are not plural in native-speaker English are used as plurals by non-native speakers (e.g. ‘informations’, ‘knowledges’, ‘advices’). Other variations include ‘make a discussion’, ‘discuss about something’ or ‘phone to somebody’.
Many native English speakers will insist that these are not variations, they are mistakes. ‘Knowledges’ and ‘phone to somebody’ are simply wrong. Many non-native speakers who teach English around the world would agree. But language changes, and so do notions of grammatical correctness.
Those who insist on standard English grammar remain in a powerful position. Academics who want their work published in international journals have to adhere to the grammatical rules followed by native English-speaking elites.
But spoken English is another matter. Why should non-native speakers bother with what native speakers regard as correct? Their main aim, after all, is to be understood by one another, and in most cases there is no native speaker present.
Professor Seidlhofer says, ‘I think that what we are looking at is the emergence of a new international attitude, the recognition and awareness that in many international contexts non-native speakers do not need to speak like native speakers, to compare themselves to them, and thus always feel ‘Less good.’