This paper will discuss critically the assertion contained in the statement above. We will see that while the economic power of the USA is a very important element in English being the dominant world language, there are other factors which have contributed to the dominance of English: some of these are historical and have nothing to do with the current economic power of the USA; others are recent and current developments which have occurred at a historically propitious moment for the growth of English as a world language, but have nothing inherently to do with the economic power of the USA. As Crystal (2003, p. 88) puts it, “Evidence would suggest that English simply found itself in the right place at the right time.” So US economic power has played an important part, but it has coincided with other developments and historical circumstances.
It is certainly true that English is the dominant world language. Nearly a billion people worldwide use it either as a first or second language and it is the official language of 71 countries (Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, p 25). In Europe English is very dominant: 99% of European official bodies cited English as their working language (Graddol 1997, p 8). Even France has started to succumb – a 1980’s study showed that almost two-thirds of French scientific publications were in English (Graddol 1997, p. 9). In every field of human knowledge English is becoming the world’s lingua franca: in 1980 a study showed that in scientific journals and magazines “85% of papers in biology and physics were being written in English, 73% of medical papers and 69% of mathematical papers....In computer science over 95% of papers are published in English.” (Crystal 2003, p. 87).
There is no doubt that the USA’s economic power has been a significant factor in the dominance of English, but after the First World War the USA also pursued a less isolationist foreign policy which also aided the spread of English. After the Second World War the USA established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In addition, through the reconstruction of Europe, Japan and the Pacific islands through the Marshall Plan, the economic power of the USA encouraged the growth of English too.(Graddol 1997, p. 8). Culturally the USA has become dominant as well through the power and influence of Hollywood (Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, p. 25) and global brands like McDonalds. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 left the USA as the only world super power and meant that English became an increasingly important language to learn in countries formerly under Soviet influence and which had used Russian as a lingua franca (|Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, p. 25). In addition, as the twentieth century went on and as open trade practices have spread and with the growth of globalization, English has cemented its position and this has everything to do with the economic power, cultural influence and foreign policy of the USA. (Graddol 1997, p. 8). The USA has led the progress and development of the internet and that has been based on economic power (which allows technological advances) and also increases the need for internet users around the world to use English. (Crystal 2001, p. 121). Crystal quotes Michael Spector writing in The New York Times : “If you want to take full advantage of the internet there is only one way to do it: learn English, which has more than ever become America’s greatest and most effective export.” (Crystal 2001, p. 121)
The current dominance of English, however, is not solely due to the economic power of the USA. There are historical factors which have helped the rapid rise to dominance of English. By the end of the nineteenth century, Greta Britain could be seen as the world’s leading super power: the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe (Graddol 1997, p. 8) and consisted of settler colonies (the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) where significant numbers of native speakers has emigrated and settled; and other colonies where English was the language of education, bureaucracy and social prestige (India, Pakistan, large parts of central Africa) (Graddol 1997, p. 10). So there were existing patterns of trade and communication in English before the 20th century began. Graddol argues
...the world position of English might have declined with the British Empire, like the languages of other colonial powers, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, had it not been for the rise of the US in the 20th century as a world superpower. (Graddol 1997, p. 8)
Graddol is being rather disingenuous to use the Portugal and the Netherlands as examples. For instance, in the one settler colony that Portugal once owned – Brazil – the Portuguese language continues to thrive. The Dutch pattern of colonization was entirely different from that practised by the British, so the Dutch language was less influential in its own colonies. In addition, there was no large scale emigration of Dutch speakers to create the settler colonies that characterized the British Empire. A better example would be France: if we imagine, hypothetically, that all the countries in the former British Empire had been French colonies, speaking French, then would English have risen so quickly to world dominance – the answer is probably that it would have taken longer, especially since Francophone countries are often linguistically hostile to English and its spread. Therefore, the rise to global dominance of the English language is not entirely attributable e to the economic and cultural power of the USA. When the British Empire broke up, its newly independent colonies often chose English as an official language – not because of the economic power of the USA, but because of colonial tradition and as a unifying force in countries which had several tribal or regional languages and needed an official language (Crystal 2003, p. 88)
Other historical circumstances favoured the rise of English. As the 20th century developed the volume of tourism, air transport and sea traffic increased dramatically and, as it coincided with better and better means of communication, the need was felt to have a common language to ensure safety standards and even to co-ordinate the actions of the police and emergency services across the world. English seemed the natural choice and we now have Seaspeak, Police Speak and Airspeak – simplified forms of English used everyday all over the world (Crystal 2003, p. 86-87). Of course, the status of the USA encouraged the choice of English (especially in Airspeak which was introduced after the Second World War) – after all, the victors were English-speaking countries largely, but it was the technology and progress which necessitated the need for a lingua franca.
In conclusion, it is true that the economic power of the USA has helped English to become the dominant world language today so quickly. However, other factors have been responsible too – the cultural power of Hollywood and the foreign policy of the US government (which could, of course, be argued to be part of its economic power). In addition, the speed with which English has become the dominant world language is also due to the historical legacy of the British Empire and the technological advances, especially in travel and communications, of the 20th and early 21st centuries. I will return to Crystal’s words from the introduction to this essay: “English simply found itself in the right place [the USA and its powerful economy] at the right time [the break up of the British Empire and the rapid advance of technology allowing rapid global communication and the globalization of the world economy].”
Crystal, D., (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, D., (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fraenkel, A., Haill, R. & O’Riordan, S., (2002) English Language, Life and Culture. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Graddol, d, (1997). The Future of English. London: the British Council.