Between five and seven million individuals, virtually all of whom lived in the British Isles, spoke English 500 years ago. English is now spoken by up to 1.8 billion people worldwide.
What caused this to happen?
The expansion of English has little to do with the language’s structure or fundamental features, and everything to do with politics.
English was transported over the world by British sailors, soldiers, pilgrims, traders, and missionaries after almost a millennium of development in the British Isles. English had already spread to every corner of the globe by the time anything like a language strategy was implemented.
Puritans who spoke English were not the only Europeans who came to North America; Spanish, French, Dutch, and German were all frequently spoken. In the centuries that followed, waves of immigrants from Europe bolstered all of the languages.
However, the founders of the United States recognized the value of language in establishing a national identity. The main language, English, had to be promoted. Several jurisdictions outlawed the teaching of foreign languages in private schools and residences as late as the turn of the century. In 1923, the United States Supreme Court overturned limits on private language instruction.
Even though English is not the official language of the United States, it is without a doubt the most widely spoken language.
And it wasn’t just America that greeted English with a “hello.” Without counting the United States, the British Empire spanned over a quarter of the globe at one time in the early twentieth century. “The sun never set on the British Empire,” as a common adage goes.
Although the empire is no longer active, English remains a vital language in every former colony.