Why Is English Used as the World’s Lingua Franca?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

What is English as lingua franca? What are the characteristics of the language that made it easier for people all over the globe to adopt and spread it?

English as a lingua franca refers to the use of English by non-native speakers as a language of choice. While English does have some competitive advantages over many other languages in terms of ease of adoption, they are not the main reason English has become the global language.

In this article, we will explore the phenomenon of English as a lingua franca.

How English Become Lingua Franca

There are five important features of the language that make it easy for non-native speakers all over the world to adopt it. These features give English a competitive advantage over other languages.

  1. English is relatively easy to spell, with many spellings closely matching the phonetic pronunciation. While this, of course, does not make English “superior” to any other language, it may give it a slight advantage in its worldwide adoption, because it is generally easier to learn to read and write.
  2. English does not have gendered nouns like the Romance languages or tonal variations that can drastically alter meaning, like Chinese. 
  3. English has few pronouns, suffixes, and prefixes whose proper use depends on the relative social standing of the speaker and the listener. For example, there is no English equivalent of the informal form or formal usted form used in Spanish.
  4. The sentence structure of English is highly flexible, allowing the same idea to be expressed in multiple ways—an active sentence like, “I kicked the ball” has the same meaning as the passive sentence “The ball was kicked by me.” Many other languages do not have this capability. 
  5. English has mostly uninflected verbs with stable consonants (in other words, these verbs are mostly the same regardless of gender, tense, case, and mood). 

The Benefits of a Phonetic Alphabet

Moreover, English is based on a phonetic alphabet. That is, the written characters correspond to particular sounds. This is a great advantage and makes writing and pronouncing words simple, because there are only so many sounds that can be represented by the letters. It limits the number of characters that comprise the writing system.

The same cannot be said for many languages of the Far East, like Chinese and Japanese. They have a pictographic-ideographic system, in which the characters represent not sounds, but things or ideas. And there are far more things and ideas than there are sounds, which saddles the script with a baffling array of characters. In standard Chinese, there are over 50,000 characters (compared to the mere 26 of our Roman alphabet).

English is also not saddled with diacritical symbols like accent marks, umlauts, macrons, and breves, all of which subtly transform the pronunciation of written words. It also tends to leave intact the spellings and pronunciations of words like garage and buffet that are borrowed from other languages, instead of aggressively anglicizing them, which further assists those unfamiliar to the language.

Global English

These features of English played a critical role in facilitating the spread of the language across every continent. While Mandarin Chinese certainly can boast more fluent speakers than English, its influence is far more constricted to a particular geographic area. The reach of English, meanwhile, is simply unmatched. It is an official language in 59 countries, a higher figure than for any other language. Of course, not everyone in these countries actually speaks English (many in the US and the UK don’t) but its widespread reach can’t be denied. 

Moreover, it is the international language of advanced fields like science, business, and diplomacy. It has become what Latin was to the Roman world and French was to Early Modern Europe—a common denominator, a language that binds peoples and nations.

Foreign Adoption and Adaptability

We saw earlier how, even in its earliest stages, English was highly flexible in accepting new words from Norse and Norman French. The process also works the other way around—English words are readily adopted by other languages, often with only slight modifications to fit the native tongue

The Japanese, in particular, are adept at adapting English words into their notoriously difficult and inaccessible language. These are known as wasei-eigo, or “Japanese-made-English.” Thus, smart became sumato, rush hour became rushawa, idol became aidoru, and so on. Despite the differences between the two languages, Japanese has readily welcomed English words, with 20,000 estimated to have been adopted.

Resistance to English as a Lingua Franca

While we English speakers may flatter ourselves by thinking that English has become the lingua franca because of some innate superiority of the language, this is hardly the case. Speakers of other languages have done so because it is convenient, advantageous, and expedient to have a working knowledge of English. The residual historical legacy of the British Empire, plus the emergence of the United States as a global superpower played a major role in rendering English the global lingua franca

Yet even within countries that have high levels of English proficiency, people are still quite proud of their native languages and wish to preserve them. If the Japanese have welcomed English influences with open arms, the French have tried (often unsuccessfully) to maintain a healthy distance. Official state commissions and acts of legislation have barred French people from using English words and phrases like pipeline, jet plane, and hamburger, in an effort to maintain the “purity” of the language (although these measures are largely unenforceable and French authorities have seldom ever attempted to impose penalties on violators). Indeed, many parts of the world view the phenomenon of English as a lingua franca as a symbol of western colonialism. This is especially true in countries, like India, that really did experience occupation and colonization under the British Empire. Some Indian politicians have attempted to stamp out the use of English among the population, though without success, as there are still great economic benefits to having a large portion of the labor force fluent in such a universal language.

Why Is English Used as the World’s Lingua Franca?

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Mother Tongue summary :

  • How English became a global language
  • How the invention of the printing press led to standardization of written English
  • Why English dictionaries are the most comprehensive found in any language

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.