Article langue anglaise - Swisstranslate

How did English become an international language?

500 years ago, English was spoken by around 7 million people, predominantly in the British Isles. Today, there are no fewer than 1.8 billion fluent English speakers and more than 55 countries that use it as a second language.

English is the principal language of business, science, literature, politics, diplomacy, and many other sectors. It is also the world’s lingua franca. So how did this language succeed in imposing itself and becoming the most spoken, most diffuse and most understood language?

To understand, we need to go back to its origins and learn about its history. It’s a unique story that has made it the major international language in numerous sectors that it is today.

The influence of the British empire

Thriving across the British Isles for 1,000 years, Shakespeare’s language spread further across the globe thanks to exchanges between pilgrims, sailors, traders and missionaries from Britain.

The influence of English can also be explained by the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440. This revolutionary invention made a major contribution to spreading the language by making texts available in all four corners of the globe. These best-selling books generated a huge enthusiasm for British literature and culture. This phenomenon contributed greatly to the birth of the British Empire, alongside its many victories and economic conquests.

The British Empire consequently became the largest in history. The inhabitants of colonised countries learned English and made it their own, which explains the emergence of new variants in Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and South Africa.

The ascension of the United States

Once the United States had been created, the aim of the founding fathers was to federate the states in order that they could unite around a common concord. To do that, it was essential that a single language, reflecting national identity was adopted. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that English really took root in the United States. In order to promote its influence, the teaching of foreign languages was banned in several states.

It’s interesting to understand how and why America so encouraged the dominance of English. To do this, we need to look at the Second World War, a period that ushered in a prosperous economic era for the Americans, thanks to booming industry and an expansion of communications.

This era enabled the US to export their culture in abundance throughout the world, and particularly to Europe, which had had great difficulty in recovering and rebuilding itself after this tragic period.

English, a cultural language

Just like business and technology, popular culture is dominated by the United States through film, television and music, which has only accentuated the univerality and spread of the english language. It has to be said that the cultural inheritance of the post-war years played a considerable role in the rise of English on the international stage. This was a period when people were looking for freedom, frivolity and self-fulfilment. It is natural therefore that hippy culture, symbolised by the Woodstock Festival, emerged. It represented the perfect example of the musical and cultural influence of the 1960s in the United States, an influence that would soon spread to the rest of the Western world.

Artists, musicians and directors see English as an opportunity to reach a larger public. Today, the opportunity of being understood offered by English drives these artists to create works in English, further reinforcing the cultural impetus it received in the second half of the 20th century.

It won’t come as a surprise that rock & roll, jazz, disco and hip hop, all musical styles which we sing and dance to, come from the United States. As well as being an industry that has captivated millions of people for almost a century, English-language music influences our daily lives and European cultures, whatever our age, gender or beliefs. Queen, the Beatles, Nina Simone, AC/DC, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley… so many personalities and legends without whom anglophone music wouldn’t be what it is today.

As far as film is concerned, English is the language of Hollywood and successful TV series. American cinema has not only produced films with unrivalled budgets, it also symbolises the dreams that have fascinated audiences beyond its borders. In Europe, Hollywood films have been hugely successful, as have American TV series which have become true cultural beacons. This enthusiasm can be explained by the positive values transmitted through these formats, which compensated for the suffering reflected in the war.

English, the language of business

English dominates the fields of education, management and, most obviously, business. The aim of the English language has always been to do business, which is why it has not found its place in Asia and Africa, where languages are more oriented towards the people.

In France, advertisers quickly realised that the glamour of English could help to attract people to their brand. Since then, it has seduced French consumers and adapted to their language, preserving the words and expressions (Haute Couture, Eau de Toilette, macaroon, chic, prêt-à-porter) that have made France a cultural power with international appeal. So it’s no coincidence that this type of advertising campaign is so significant.

Staying with France, American brands such as Levi’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and many others have been established for decades as market leaders of our daily consumption. We have to understand that we are heavily influenced by the American power to suggest new means of consumption.

English is also the language of the technological revolution, notably with the arrival and ascendance of Apple over 10 years, which confirmed the United States as the most technically innovative nation.

A language which moves with the times

Increasingly, companies are using ‘Franglais’ (a mixture of French and English) that corporate employees have got into the habit of using in their oral and written exchanges, for the sake of simplicity and current trends.

It is obvious that British culture in all its forms continues to spread throughout the world. Although the French language has sufficient words to describe any object or situation, linguistic trends are encouraging us to use more English. We no longer even realise that everyday terms rooted in our society are English (weekend, jeans, meeting, selfie etc).

This linguistic evolution did not exist even 100 years ago, and we owe it to the influence of television, music and, in recent years, social networks. Mixing English terms with French is a common characteristic of the French. So were will this influence lead us in 20 years’ time? After decades of English-speaking shortcomings, perhaps by then, the French will have mastered it even better than their mother tongue.

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