English is the third most spoken native language in the world, behind only Mandarin (Chinese) and Spanish, and is spoken by more people overall than any other language in the world. English gained traction around the world during the 17th century—largely due to the influence of the British Empire and the United States—and has become the leading language of international discourse and business.
A brief history of the English Language
English is a West Germanic language, part of a group of languages that developed in the area of Europe's North Sea, which includes modern-day countries such as Germany, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom (among others). There are six West Germanic languages in all: English, Dutch/Flemish, German, Afrikaans, Yiddish, and the lesser-known Frisian.
English as we know it has its origin in Germanic tribes who migrated to the UK around 400-500 CE. The language they developed is typically classified as Old English, and looks very little like the English of today—particularly thanks to its different word order, now-peculiar spellings, and use of characters such as ash (æ) and eth (ð), both of which have fallen out of common use today. This language evolved into Middle English during the twelfth-fifteenth centuries, influenced by Latin, Old Norse, and French. Middle English is much more readable to the modern eye, though the spelling is often still unusual and the th-sounding letter thorn, now written as þ (not to be confused with p) had not yet been replaced by Y (as in "Ye Olde Shoppe" and which, in turn, was later replaced by th).
Sometime around the 1500s, Middle English gave way to Modern English, which continues to evolve and change. For example, today's writing is filled with acronyms, abbreviations, creative use of punctuation and capitalization, and emojis that simply did not exist a century ago.
Top 10 Countries that Speak English as a Primary Language (by total population 2021)
United States — 332,915,073
United Kingdom — 68,207,116
Canada (except for Quebec) — 38,067,903
Australia — 25,788,215
Liberia — 5,180,203
Ireland — 4,982,907
New Zealand — 4,860,643
Jamaica — 2,973,463
Trinidad and Tobago — 1,403,375
Guyana — 790,326
It's important to note that this list includes only countries in which English is the primary language. This has a massive impact on which countries appear on the list. If the list were expanded to include countries in which English is not the primary language but is widely used as a "lingua franca," or common language, the list would change considerably.
Top 10 English-Speaking Countries in the World (as primary or lingua franca 2021)
India — 1,393,409,038
United States — 332,915,073
Pakistan — 225,199,937
Nigeria — 211,400,708
Philippines — 111,046,913
United Kingdom — 68,207,116
Tanzania — 61,498,437
South Africa — 60,041,994
Kenya — 54,985,698
Canada — 38,067,903
The role of English in the modern world
English is the preeminent language of business, diplomacy, and international communication around the world. It is one of six official languages used by the United Nations and is used by organizations including the International Olympic Committee, the European Free Trade Association, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. It is the most widely taught foreign language around the world and the most-used language in scientific studies, with roughly 50% of English-language science writing created by researchers whose native language is something other than English.
In light of this worldwide acceptance, many countries have English designated as the de jure official language, meaning it is legally recognized as the official language. In some cases, particularly in Africa, where countries may have dozens of regional languages, English is frequently the official language but not be the primary language. This means that English can be used in business, education, and official documents but is not the language most widely spoken by its residents. This is the case for nations such as India and Pakistan.
There are also nations in which English is a de facto national language, meaning that it exists in reality and is practiced, even though it is not officially recognized by law. This is especially true in countries that have no official language. For example, even though English is the most commonly spoken language in the United States, the country actually has no legally declared official language at the federal level. As such, English is the de facto national language.
Of the nations where English is a de facto national language, the United States is the most populous with an estimated 332 million people.
The "Three Circles" of English
Linguist Braj Kachru developed the three circles model in the mid-1980s to describe the spread of English and describe the various degrees to which English is prevalent in each country. The model visualizes English as a series of three differently-sized circles, arranged concentrically like a bulls-eye. While even Kachru admits there are still a few edge cases that don't fit cleanly into any of the three circles, his model nonetheless accommodates the majority of the world's countries using a mere three distinct categories:
The Inner Circle — The smallest circle, this section includes countries in which English is the native language of the majority of the population: mainly the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and much of Canada. The Inner Circle is the "norm-providing" circle, where native speakers continue to evolve the language's rules and usage.
The Outer Circle — This confusingly named circle is actually the second of the three, lodged firmly in between its smaller and larger siblings. The Outer Circle comprises countries with small communities of native English speakers and widespread use of English as a second language. English is not the primary language or the mother tongue, but it is widely used as a lingua franca language for trade and business, as well as a bridge language between people whose native tongues are different from one another. Countries in the Outer Circle include India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya, Jamaica and Papua New Guinea, and Singapore—where English is so prevalent that it may soon become the primary language. The Outer Circle is also referred to as the "norm-developing" circle, as it adopts but also challenges the norms created by the Inner Circle.
The Expanding Circle — The largest circle of all is the Expanding Circle, which encompasses countries in which English has no historic or cultural role and is neither a primary nor a bridge language—yet is commonly spoken as a foreign language, typically for business. Countries in the Expanding Circle include Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, and much of the rest of the world. The Expanding Circle is often called the "norm-dependent" circle because it relies upon the other circles to determine the proper usage of the language.