One thing you cannot help but notice, if you travel, is that English is just about everyone’s second language. In many parts of the world, their second language is almost as common as their first. In Iceland, for example, you hear as much English in the streets as Icelandic. The locals just seem to assume that people they don’t know are going to prefer English, while people they know will prefer Icelandic. In effect, they have a public language and private language. This is something you see in many places.
It used to be that French was the language of diplomacy. It is where we get the expression lingua franca. Of course, long before that, Latin was the official language of global affairs. In the case of French, it was simply a matter of France being the dominant power on the Continent, so French was the language of diplomacy among Europeans, but not the rest of the world. Latin was the language of the Church, so while the whole of Europe was Catholic, it was a useful common tongue for diplomacy.
The rise of English is a slightly different matter. For sure, the Pax Americana has a lot to do with English becoming the diplomatic language of the West, but it does not explain it becoming the public language. That’s probably due to the rise of global corporations in the last fifty years. Many European countries started teaching English in schools, because it would be useful in the work place. American companies would be more inclined to hire a German who spoke some English than an Italian with no English.
Power and money are always good answers to most questions, because they are easy to understand and confirm things we like to believe about the world. We want to think that there are great benefits to being rich or powerful, like imposing your language and religion on those over whom you rule. There’s certainly some truth to it, but it does not explain everything. For example, the prevalence of English in the Nordic countries is much higher than in France or Italy. The Germans have a lot of English speakers too.
Another possibility for why English has becomes the universal language is the rise of science and technology as cultural forces. English is extremely useful in science, because of its precision and flexibility. English is a not a language with a lot of words that have two very different meanings. For example, study and studio mean entirely different things. In French you would use the same word and the context would make the distinction. Few words in English need context to have a full meaning.
The other thing about English is it adopts new words, either from other languages or out of the blue, with great speed. This post by paleontologist John Hawks is an amusing example of how the flexibility of language works with science and technology. Most languages don’t adopt loan words very well. Instead, they have to take existing words and combine them together to get something like the meaning of the new word. German is hilarious with this. Lots of Zungenbrechers in German with new words.
It is possible that English is a better language for science and technology, where new abstract concepts are common. It is easier to invent a new word or borrow a word, like synergy for example, and imbue it with a definition that captures the new idea, rather than force the new idea into the old grammar. The word synergy was kicking around psychology for a century, before it was picked up by tech companies and turned into a catchy word to describe involuntary cooperation through the use of technology.
Of course, the implication here is that English evolved with people who were better at science and technology. It’s certainly true that the Industrial Revolution started in England and first spread to northern Europe. It’s certainly true that northern Europeans remain the most inventive people on earth. This is probably just a coincidence or perhaps something to do with ecology, as everyone knows there are no differences between people anywhere at any time under any conditions. To suggest otherwise is bad.
Even so, the rapid adoption of English as the official second language in European countries with a common heritage is suggestive. These countries have also always had a high and low version of their languages as well. High German is thought to derive from the Suebi people. Low German, the various German dialects in central Europe, come from the other tribes. Perhaps having a public language and private language, a public custom and private custom, is the real root of this phenomenon, rather than modern technology.
Regardless of the cause, English is becoming the official language of the planet, even as the ratio of Europeans to everyone else rapidly shrinks. Communicating in English is more efficient and more accurate across the wide swath of humanity. There are exceptions at the fringes, but there always are. In the main, English is becoming the public language of the world. That means the elite of the future will be plucked from those with the cognitive skills best suited for mastering the complexity of English thought.
That’s the part you can see in your daily life. There are South Asians, for example, who have a delicate mastery of English. There are others who are comical eruptions of misnomers and butchered grammar. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t think in English or even pretend to think in English. As a result, their mastery of the language is limited to mimicry. Since language is about communicating abstract concepts, these people will never be able to rise to the upper reaches of the cognitive class.
This is usually where the bad people bring up the phrase Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which then results in the usual suspects leaping from the bushes yelling “That had been debunked!” In truth, the strong version has simply been dismissed, because it does not fit in with the blank slate argument. Spend time around people, who speak English as a second language, You will notice that some are thinking in English, while others are just interpreting their native thoughts into English sounds.
It’s pleasant to think that the dominance of English portends good things for native English speakers and their cousins in Europe, but the Suebi may be the better example. They left a lot of their culture, but none of their people. There are claims by some to be the decedents of the Subei, but there is no proof as of yet. Most likely, the Subei were wiped out by strangers who flowed over the borders.