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English in the world today
English in the world today

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Who speaks English? (Part 1)

History is not simply about the passage of time, of course. It is what people do, and the changes that occur in society as a result of people’s actions over time. The history of English can therefore be seen as a record of the changes that have occurred in the populations of those who speak the language. When two languages come into contact, what actually happens is that two communities who speak different languages engage with each other, and the nature of that engagement will determine how the languages influence one another. In other words, it is important when we study English not to forget that what we are actually studying is the language as it is and was used by real people.

I remarked earlier that there is a problem in talking about statistics such as those which say that English is spoken by almost two billion people the world over because they make large generalisations about the nature of the English involved, and the relationship that people have to the language. Such statistics can never fully represent the diversity of experiences that speakers of the language have, either about whether they feel they are ‘authentic’ English speakers or about what they themselves understand English to be. In this section, therefore, I shall consider the role English plays in the lives of people in various parts of the world, and look at how the opinions people hold about the language are related to their personal histories, to the histories of their communities and to their interpretations of the history of the language.