Latin was the world language as far as there was one, in Europe at all events. Now English is the world's Lingua franca, the language that is useful everywhere. The French wanted it to be theirs but it did not work for them. Too many Brits were there first. The Lingua franca which got the name was largely Italian and used round the Mediterranean. Rory Sutherland, writing in The Spectator puts a more general view than the commentary below at Slaves to the network

The Triumph Of English As The World's Language
The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the Eastern Seaboard of North America. They were barely 1 percent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’ prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage across the country but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.”

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere — and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift under way and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages?

Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won’t get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas — or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America. Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca that everybody can use with everybody else.

The choice has fallen on English not because it is more beautiful or more expressive, but just because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.

Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last thousand years and is now used by close to a billion people, but it never has spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: Each now has more than 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.

There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the U.S. in North America, the United Kingdom in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia (where the entire continent speaks it). All of that is because of the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.

Of course, the British empire went into a steep decline almost a century ago, but the superpower that took Britain’s place was the United States, another English-speaking country. After another century during which everybody dealing in international business and diplomacy — indeed, any independent traveler who went very far from home — simply had to learn English, the die was cast. English had become the first worldwide lingua franca.

There have been few languages in world history that were spoken by more people as a second language than as a first; English has had that distinction for several decades already. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English probably has broken that record as well.

Most of those learners never will become fully fluent in English, but over the years some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.

No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on Earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.
It is nice to know and a relief for Englishmen.


Slaves to the network
It is a common lament that the British are bad at languages. At first glance, this is inarguably true. Few educated Brits can chat unselfconsciously in French. Yet ordinary Swedes or Dutchmen can tell jokes and explain complicated ideas in perfectly idiomatic English.

It’s our fault, isn’t it?

Well, not quite. Let’s leave the matter of individual competence behind and zoom outwards to look at the wider ‘network effects’ of learning a foreign language. Let’s assume you are Dutch. It is immediately obvious which foreign language to learn first — English. But for a native English speaker there’s a quandary. Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese or Malay could all make a competing case. You could spend years learning Russian only to end up living in Shanghai, where it would be little use. French is useful in many countries. But a Dutch expat or tourist will find English useful everywhere. Foreigners don’t learn English to talk to us — they learn it to talk to each other.

It is also easier for a Dutchman to learn English than vice versa. By the age of 25, flemophones have been exposed to 10,000 hours of subtitled English-language television. I have never seen a Dutch film. There are 100 times more websites in the language of Shakespeare than in the language of, um, you know, a famous Dutch writer. As for scientific papers, no contest. The secrets to cold fusion will not be first published in Tagalog or Welsh.

But here’s the clincher. Suppose I do try to learn Dutch, because my life’s dream is to retire to Hindeloopen. For this to be worthwhile, it is not enough for me to speak tolerable Dutch. I would only really start to benefit once I reached a level of fluency where I can speak Dutch better than the average Dutchman speaks English. This would take years. A friend of mine, a linguist, learnt almost no Dutch living in Amsterdam since everyone switched to English in his presence. Budapest was worse: so few non-natives speak their language that Hungarians don’t know what a foreign accent sounds like. Instead of hailing him as a foreigner who had heroically mastered their intractable language, people assumed he was a Hungarian — but a dimwitted one with a speech defect.

The upshot? Every hour a continental European spends improving their English may bring several hundred times more value than a Briton can gain from an hour learning a European language. It’s not our fault.

This is, incidentally, an argument for teaching Latin in British schools. Why bet the farm on a single living language, when you can teach the rudiments of language itself? If they never travel abroad, their English grammar will be better for learning Latin. If they end up living in Buenos Aires, it will make learning Spanish easier. It is a hedged bet.

But a bigger point here is that the dominance of English is just one of many examples of the extreme network effect — of the disproportionality which invariably arises in a more connected world. Before the days of cheap air travel, the Internet and cheap telephony, learning the language of your near neighbours (in our case France) was the obvious thing to do. So the Dutch might learn German and the Finns Swedish. There were natural firebreaks and limits to scale.

Not any more. Winner takes all. Widespread languages get more widespread. Megacities get more mega. The mega rich get megaricher. Ninety per cent of UK web searches take place on Google. Amazon owns 30 per cent of US e-commerce. A bank run in Spain has repercussions in New York. And the world no longer even pretends to obey the Newtonian laws for which all its institutions — laws, tax regimes and economic theories  — were designed.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.