World: how useful is English really?

It's the "World language", they say. But if that's the case, why are so many people learning Mandarin these days?

I speculated that one of the reasons why India might overtake China by the end of this century is its educated people's fluency in English. It wasn't such a narrow-minded supposition, I suspect. Much to the chagrin of the French, it is many years since English superceded French as the language of choice in business, diplomacy or tourism. 

Interestingly, India is the world's second biggest English-speaking nation. And the Philippines comes in a very close third, which may stand them in good stead in years to come.

Total number of English speakers (either as a first or additional language) in millions are:

251 United States, or 96% of the total population
125 India, or 11%
  90 Philippines, 93%
  79 Nigeria, or 53%
  60 United Kingdom, or 98%
  46 Germany, or 56%
  25 Canada, or 85%
  23 France, or 36%
  18 Pakistan, or 11%
  17 Australia, or 97%
  17 Italy, or 29%
  14 Netherlands, or 87%
  14 South Africa, or 29%
  13 Spain, or 27%
  12 Turkey, or 17%
  11 Poland, or 29%
  10 China, or 1%
    8 Sweden, or 89%
    8 Cameroon, or 42%
    7 Malaysia, or 27%
    7 Russia, or 5%
    7 Thailand, or 10%
    6 Belgium, or 59%
    6 Israel, or 85%
    6 Romania, or 29%
    6 Zimbabwe, or 42%
    5 Greece, or 48%
    5 Sierra Leone, or 84%
    5 Mexico, or 5%
    5 Austria, or 58%
    5 Denmark, or 86%
    5 Switzerland, or 61%
    4 Norway, or 91%
    4 Ireland, or 98%
    4 Singapore, or 80%
    4 Tanzania, or 10%
    4 New Zealand, or 98%
    4 Bangladesh, or 2%
    3 Finland, or 63%
    3 Portugal, or 32%
    3 Lebanon, or 81%
    3 Papua New Guinea, or 50%
    3 Liberia, or 83%
    3 Kenya, or 7%
    3 Jamaica, or 98%
    3 Uganda, or 8%
    3 Hong Kong, or 36%
    3 Czech Republic, or 24%
    2 Hungary, or 23%
    2 Croatia, or 49%

Selected others:

    2 Sri Lanka, or 10%
    2 Zambia, or 16%
    2 Kazkhstan, or 15%
    2 Bosnia Herzogovina, or 45%
    2 Bulgaria, or 23%
    2 Slovakia, or 32%
    1 Ghana, or 6%.

And the wider picture? 

Across the EU as a whole, some 230 million people speak English, or 46%. Across the planet a total of 949 million are competant in English, being around 18% of the global population.

Notes: all populations and percentages have been rounded. Source: Wikipedia, which by its own admission states that "some numbers have been calculated by Wikipedia editors from data in other sources, so these figures are imprecise and should be treated with great caution".

Taking these figures as purely indicative rather than precise, it's clear as to why China might hope more of us were able to communicate in Mandarin. We don't hear the same clamor from the Russians, where only around one in twenty can speak in English. 

Brazil doesn't figure on the list at all. Despite increased teaching of English in schools, the main English language daily in the Portuguese-speaking country, Brazil Herald, is read mainly by tourists, foreign executives and expatriates, according to Wikipedia.

In India, only a quarter of a million or so speak English as their mother-tongue. All other Anglophones speak English as an additional language. But the number of them and their mastery of it has enabled India to develop a huge call-centre industry and other benefits which are not afforded to countries which are less proficient in the international tongue.

Rapidly, the Philippines is overtaking India as a preferred supplier of offshore call centre outsourcing services. With virtually everyone in the counttry proficient in English, it's not hard to see why.

As China's economic might increases, and the "redback" or yuan moves into contention as the world's main reserve currency by 2020, it's inevitable that many parents will be persuading their children to learn Mandarin as a second language. Yet, how many young Chinese will be learning English as their country becomes wealthier?

I recall being told by a German back in the early 1990s that anyone under 35 in Germany could speak English. It wasn't so long after that certain German corporates like Siemens adopted the use of English in their senior management meetings to reduce discussion times.

What will the Chinese do?

Rosie Goldsmith wrote for the BBC: "The young nation of South Sudan has chosen English as its official language but after decades of civil war, the widespread learning of English presents a big challenge for a country brought up speaking a form of Arabic. I knew there might be problems as soon as I arrived at Juba International airport - and was asked to fill in my own visa form, as the immigration officer could not write English. The colourful banners and billboards hung out to celebrate South Sudan's independence back in July, and still adorning the streets now, are all in English. As are the names of the new hotels, shops and restaurants.After decades of Arabisation and Islamisation by the Khartoum government, the predominantly Christian and African south has opted for English as its official language."

Not Mandarin then, it seems. Not so strange, really.

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