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English in the world today
English in the world today

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What is English? (Part 2)

Before moving on to a discussion of the issues discussed in the Comment section, let us first pursue the definition of the language in a little more detail. In textbooks on the subject, it is common practice nowadays to add statistical information about how many people in the world speak the language. Latest estimates suggest that English is currently spoken by between 1500 and 2000 million people, in hundreds of countries, and operates as the main form of communication in important domains such as global business and science. It is precisely because of statistics such as these that some people feel the language has developed in such a way that, conceptually, it is now a quite different entity from its pre-globalised incarnation.

We need to be a bit careful, however, when we make assertions about English using figures like these. While statements of this sort may seem fairly straightforward in one respect, there are a number of hidden issues in the way they are phrased which can complicate the picture. For example, what do we actually mean when we say that ‘English is spoken by almost two billion people in the world today’? What counts as ‘English’ in this context? And who qualifies as having the competence to be a ‘speaker’ of it? Is the English that is spoken in a town on the south coast of England the same as that spoken on the north island of New Zealand or in the centre of Singapore? And if there are significant differences between the way it is spoken in these places, at what point do we say that they are different varieties of the language, or that perhaps they are actually different languages? And does a ‘speaker’ of the language need to have perfect fluency in it? Does someone learning the language count as a ‘speaker’? And finally, is there any significance in the fact that these statements privilege speaking over writing? Should we consider spoken English and written English in the same way, or are there important differences between them which mean we should view them as distinct entities?

Once we start scrutinising some of these issues and concepts we can see that a statement such as ‘English is spoken by almost two billion people in the world’ is an abstraction, and one which raises almost as many questions as it answers. So rather than talk only in abstractions, let us consider some concrete examples of the use of the language around the world in an attempt to determine more closely what counts as English, and who qualifies as an English speaker.