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English and World Languages

Hello, students; here's another posting to Mr. B.'s English Class blog. I'm your host, Mr. B.

If you speak English as your native language, then you have an ability that a very large fraction of people in communities all across the globe are diligently working towards. Ancient political wranglings in Europe combined with the historically global spread and influence of the United Kingdom and the rise of British colonies in more modern times, particularly the United States but to a lesser degree India and Australia, have taken the language of a few hundreds of thousands of people on an obscure island off the northwestern coast of Europe and promoted it to what it among the two most influential languages on the planet today.

There are languages with more speakers than English, but no other language is spoken by so many widely separated people in positions of education and influence as is English today. People all over the world recognize English as the global language of opportunity. In fact, it can be startling to learn how much motivation there is, and how much time and energy are expended, in learning English as a second language. There are more English learners in China, for instance, than there are English speakers in the United States. English has turned into a common and frequent language of exchange, education, business, and even as a mediator for culture in many parts of the world. When people come together in circumstances where precision is vital and the stakes are high, English is the language of choice. English has taken over such complicated areas as international commerce, aviation and air traffic control, and education and research. Other languages play roles in these areas, but typically only minor ones compared to English, because when two educated people from far-flung corners of the world come together, they can almost certainly be expected to share some knowledge of English whatever their own native languages might be--and this common knowledge serves as a convenient basis for communication.

Americans who already speak English as their native language have traditionally disdained the learning of foreign languages, and this is probably because speaking as they already speak English, they can and do get by in the world just fine speaking that and nothing else. An American monoglot may not be able to order dinner in a French restaurant, but he certainly will be able to manage his business, trade, and travel in France on his English ability alone. The United States remains practically the last country in the world where one can complete a college-level course of study and graduate without speaking a word of at least one foreign language.

One thing that makes English both difficult to learn and difficult to use well--but also extremely precise and flexible--is the very large number of words in English as compared with other languages. The histories of the English-speaking peoples is a history of travel and colonization, and as areas came under the influence of English speakers, those speakers adapted foreign words into their own vocabularies. As foreign-language speakers moved in to English-speaking areas, they brought their own language and added more words to the English corpus. This process has resulted not only in a large word count but also a large number of synonyms in English--that is, words which mean the same as other words. It is famously said that the Inuit Eskimo language has 12 words for snow--English seems to have that many for most things. What do English speakers call a machine with wheels that you can drive from place to place? Automobile, car, wheels, ride, buggy, and in an earlier age, perhaps horseless carriage. Perhaps you can think of more. Of course, no two words mean exactly the same thing; each is colored with particular shades of meaning, although this difference can be very difficult to describe. What's the difference between big and large, for instance? If you look in the front of any large dictionary of the English language, you'll see a long roster of experts from every walk of life listed as contributors. These people work to pin down precise differences and working out the fine distinctions in cases like this. But you don't have to be an expert to feel the difference, and even when native speakers can't tell you the precise difference between big and large, it's almost certain that they will use these words correctly in sentences they construct in actual speech.

That the posting for this week. Thanks for reading, and tune in again next week for another posting on Mr. B.'s English Class blog.