English is currently the primary or secondary language in many countries, and in fact it is the most widely taught and understood language in the world. Although Modern Standard Chinese has more native speakers, English is used by more people as a second or foreign language. Over 400 million people speak English as their first language. Estimates about second language speakers of English put their number at around 1.5 billion. English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, diplomacy and the Internet. It has been one of the official languages of the United Nations since its founding in 1945 and is considered by many to be the universal language.
Those who fear that the language of some new immigrant group to the United States is going to somehow displace English are worrying about something that simply won’t happen. Their fear flies in the face of both the overwhelming dominance of the English language, and the history of all previous immigrant groups in the United States. In the nineteenth century, for instance, new immigrants from Europe gathered in linguistic enclaves, established newspapers in their old European languages, established businesses and put up bi-lingual signs. Within three generations, all those old European languages were forgotten, the newspapers had gone out of business or transformed themselves into English dailies. Yet, far fewer people spoke English in the ninteenth century than now.
Far from being threatened, English is more likely to kill off several other living tongues over the next few generations, since the numbers and percentages of English speakers is increasing every year.
English, of course, does not sound the same everywhere it is spoken. Though one can easily converse with someone from England or Austrailia, every so often words or phrases pop up that make everyone scratch their heads. Despite all the contact between Australia and the United States, for instance, most Americans hearing the lyrics to the song Waltzing Matilda believe that it has something to do with dancing. Instead, “Matilda” refers to a knapsack worn by a hobo, and so the song is actually describing the life of a vagabond.
Although my books, The Bible’s Most Fascinating People and The Bible: A Reader’s Guide were published in the U.S., my primary publisher is actually Quarto, a British publisher in London. As a consequence, my editors were in London, and all my correspondence and phone calls were to people with London accents who would sound at home on the BBC. And, although for the most part I’ve never had any difficulty understanding them, there are occasional, momentary puzzles.
Once, while my family and I were in Disneyland, I got an email and later a voicemail from my London editor informing me that my contract (I forget for which book) was ready and that she’d “courier” it to me. My first thought was that some little guy on a bicycle would be carrying the contract to me. However, I quickly dismissed that as improbable since last I checked there were no bike lanes across the Atlantic. So my second thought was that she meant what an American would mean if she had said she’d “overnight” it—or more commonly, “Fed-ex” it.
My second thought was the right one, of course. The contract arrived in a sealed plastic envelope, with the name of the British company emblazoned on the outside: “Inter Continent Couriers Ltd.” Perhaps that’s as common as Federal Express is for us in the U.S. Once it had reached our shores, it was DHL that picked it up and actually delivered it to my door.
So I signed the contract and faxed it back to her. My friends and family whom I’ve showed the emails I’ve gotten from London comment on how “British” they sound. Even written languages have an “accent.” Despite the fact that the British and Americans speak the same language, it only takes a handful of sentences for us to realize that we’re not reading something written by a guy in Kansas, or vice-versa, someone from South Kensington.