Upon birth, we first learn to eat and sleep (fortunately, breathing and eliminating come naturally). Language, because it is so important to our survival and quality of life, is next on the list. The first language you learn is your mother tongue.
No two people learn or use language the same way. The influences on our language patterns are endless. The music we listen to, books we read, neighborhood we live in, parents, friends we hang out with and where we go to school (and for how long) all determine how we use the language we grow up learning.
What happens when two people who need to communicate with each other learned different mother tongues? In the days of the Ottoman Empire when Mediterranean port cities were the hot bed of commerce and diplomacy, this was a real problem. The solution was Lingua Franca.
A common language, Lingua Franca was mostly Italian mixed with a smattering of French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic for commonality sake. Franca means frankish since Europeans were called “Franks” or “Franji” in Arabic and “Phrankoi” in Greek.
Today, “lingua franca” has become a general term for common or commercial languages used by peoples of diverse speech. There are several potential lingua francas in existence today. Spanish, French and Chinese are good candidates but due to the popularity of Western culture, English stands out as the most widely spoken language in the world.
Considered by some as the first global lingua franca, and by others as the most “successful” language in the world, its initial spread began with British colonization. However, English has not belonged to England for quite some time now.
Once the United States became a global superpower after WWII, the spread of English could not be stopped and is currently spoken by more than 1 billion people globally. It even infiltrated Cuba, a country purposefully isolated from the United States over the past half century.
As English spreads across cultures, new speakers under differing cultural influences hybridize it for their own needs. For instance, in Singapore, an English-based creole language called “Singlish” is popularly spoken, much to the chagrin of its government whose intervention tries to promote “good” Standard English.
Of the billion or so people who speak English, only one-third of them learn it as a mother tongue. Worldwide, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have greater numbers of native speakers. English is most widely taught as a foreign language. In the European Union, 89% of school children study English. With a greater number of nonnative speakers, the fate of English lies in the hands of people who are learning it as a second language and morphing it for their own purposes.
With so much history behind it and so much outside influence effecting it, the question begs: what is the future of English?