Everyone knows that there are more speakers of Mandarin than any other language in the world. Just over one billion people speak Mandarin as their native tongue. Compared to the nearly four hundred million native speakers of English, there would appear to be "no contest." Yet, it is just as well-known that English, not Mandarin, is the international language. Given these statistics, how can this be? Looking more closely at these and other facts reveals how English has become the world's most widespread language.
The history of written Chinese goes back at least 4,000 years, that of English little more than 1,000 years. The language called English is actually a hybrid of Scandinavian and German tongues created by immigrants to England in the 5th century A.D. Over the next 500 years, English developed into several major dialects spoken principally on most of the island of England. With continuous invasions by more Scandinavians and the French over the next few centuries, the English language received a fresh stimulus of foreign words, including Latin and Greek, the preferred classical languages in educational and political circles at that time in Europe. English as a principal language of literature did not evolve until the 14th century (Chaucer). By the 16th century, English was in full bloom, both in literature as well as in science.
England, referred to as Great Britain by this time, was amassing political, economic, and military power at breath-taking speed. The Industrial Revolution of the next century required foreign resources; imperialism gave the go-ahead for Britain and other European powers to not only take what they wanted from foreign lands but to lay conquest to those lands as well. Additionally, the rapid social changes engendered by the change from agriculture to manufacturing meant a surplus of farm workers, resulting in a waiting army of the dispossessed to emigrate to Britain's newfound colonies. In the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of Englishmen left their mother country for North America. In the 18th century, hundreds of thousands more set sail for Australia and New Zealand, as well as South Asia (the British Raj) and Africa (primarily South Africa). At the height of the British Empire, one-fourth of the world's people and lands were living under the Union Jack. Thus, by the close of the 19th century English rule had extended to the six principal continents (including British Guyana in South America).
This first-ever domination of the globe by one language is the primary reason for the international use of English today. A second reason lies in the rise of the United States of America as a leading world power just as Britain's power began to fade. At the close of the 19th century, the U.S. fought with Spain (in1898). After the U.S. victory, Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, resulting in the further introduction of English into Asia and the Caribbean. After U.S. involvement in both World Wars, despite Britain's continued decline, English became more commonly used around the world, especially in continental Europe and Japan. Since 1950, the rapidly growing U.S. economy as well as its academic and scientific excellence has insured that English remains the language of commerce and intellectual intercourse. The world of entertainment, most notably Hollywood, has also contributed to the popularization of English.
It is estimated that at least 300 million people around the world are now studying or using English as a second language, for purposes of education, employment, or personal interest.Some 75% of all international communications are in English, and with the rise of the Internet, it is doubtful that this figure will decrease any time soon. At the dawn of the new millennium, the world has one international language, English.