But why English?

2015-01-06 22:10

According to recent reports the 2014 South African matric results indicate a likely 3% to 5% drop in English proficiency. How could a potential continued decline affect South Africa in the global context?

Today the challenge of communicating internationally in accurate English applies to enterprises in all countries. International companies competing for the same prospective client are evaluated on the fluency of their communications. Indeed, a compelling and lucid proposal can prove to be the tipping point in close decisions.

Apart from potentially creating a perception of poor quality control, inaccurate language can cause an audience to doubt the credibility of what is being said. Errors can cause “sticking points” - those moments when the audience becomes confused, cannot keep up with the presenter, or simply stop listening.

But why English? English entrenched itself internationally over the last two centuries. This began with England’s leading role in landmark events, such as the industrial revolution, colonialism, and World War 2, and was reinforced with the USA’s establishment as the planet’s most powerful nation.  Unquestionably, the internet explosion reinforced the prevalence of English even further.

The impact of English as the most popular world language is well established. It is the working language of international organizations and conferences, scientific publications, international banking, economic affairs and trade, global brand advertising, international air and maritime safety, international law, technology transfer, tertiary (university) education, the majority of cinema and music, and international tourism.

English is also a “bridging language” in interpretation and translation, having historically borrowed so many words from so many cultures. Because it has the largest collective vocabulary, English does provide an extraordinary number of permutations to match subtle variations of meaning in other languages.

But, when English is not a national language amongst competing countries who has the advantage? What, for example, if it were China, Germany or Brazil making their best bid in English?

Fifty million Germans

According to available research there are more English speakers in some non-English countries than there are in countries where English is a first language. When you compare the average percentage of English speakers in the major European Union countries, specifically where English is not an official language, the average ratio of English speakers (over 50%) far exceeds that of South Africa (31%) where English is an official language. Major EU economies such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands have English speaking ratios of 70%, 86%, 86% and 90% respectively. To put these high levels of fluency in perspective even England, the birth home of the English language, does not attain a perfect score, reaching a ratio of only 97.74% English speakers.

Germany, the world’s fourth biggest economy, has the seventh largest number of people who can speak English (51.5 million). The top six countries all have English as one of their official languages: (6) the Philippines, (5) United Kingdom, (4) Nigeria, (3) Pakistan, (2) India, and (1) the USA. David Graddoll, already noted, in his 1997 book “The Future of English”, that the majority of German scholars, in more than ten of the key scientific disciplines, claimed that English was the language that they primarily worked in.

These scholars included 98% of those who worked in the field of physics. Experienced international travellers will testify to the remarkably high quality of English that is attained throughout many parts of Europe.

It is apparent that the member countries of the European Union have a strong advantage, over the BRICS countries, an advantage that goes beyond geography or physical resources. Because English is understood by a wider cross-section of the 27 EU countries’ inhabitants (more than 50%), they are able communicate internationally on more diverse levels and more freely. In contrast, the BRICS countries’ average number of English speakers is a little over 12.5%. South Africa (with the smallest total population) has the highest ratio of English speakers (31%). India follows with only 18% of English speakers.

Brazil, Russia and China fall a long way behind with 7.9%, 5.48%, and 0.73% respectively. It is important to remember that India, by virtue of its sheer population size of over 1,2 billion, has the second highest number of English speakers in the world, 225 million. Remarkably, India is only topped by the USA.


The definition of English speakers and their degree of fluency does have many variances between many countries. This is due to, firstly, different research methodologies, and secondly because many people understand the same questions differently.  A distinction must be made between actual English speakers with reasonable fluency and English learners, who include those who only know a few phrases. For example, the relative numbers of Chinese reportedly learning English may be huge (often quoted as close to 300 million) but the reality is that their average fluency is likely to be extremely low.

The reason is, partly, because the Chinese have not had a high exposure to English (compared to India and other former English colonies) and do not share a common alphabet. The lower percentage of Chinese speakers is understandable when considering that, by comparison, only 18% of Indians speak English despite a long history of British colonialism and trade, and despite the fact that it is one of India’s official languages.

The mainland Chinese statistics realistically estimate a figure of approximately 10 million English speakers (which excludes Hong Kong or Taiwan’s populations). It is also most probable that the majority of English speakers in China are situated in the major commercial centres, such as Shanghai (which has the biggest stock exchange in the world after New York, Tokyo and London).

Unique status

All the major countries with high GDP’s per capita (as opposed to gross national wealth), irrespective of their official languages, have far higher ratios of English speakers than any of the BRICS countries. The only exception amongst the high GDP per capita countries is Japan, which shares a similar ratio to the BRICS average of 12.5% English speakers.  But, that figure is still relatively high (for Japan), when you consider that Japan is the planet’s most homogenous major nation. Strong homogenous societies are less likely to be influenced by the languages introduced by other cultures.

This unique status largely resulted from a self-declared isolationist policy that separated Japan from the rest of the world for almost 200 years until the late 1860’s, when it was coerced into opening its borders.

Unlike Japan, Brazil shares a common alphabet with European Union countries. Brazil uses English terminology widely in commerce and advertising, broadcasts English music and cinema extensively on all electronic media, has over 200 universities for a population of 200 million, and has particularly fast growing links with America in terms of tourism and trade. Therefore, it is possible that Brazil could be in an excellent position to improve the nation’s overall levels of English proficiency, well beyond the Japanese average, and at a faster rate than its BRICS partners, in the foreseeable future.

By placing a greater importance on achieving higher standards of English for business communications, forward thinking Brazilian companies are increasing their advantages in a very competitive international market. This raises the question: what can South African educational organisations and companies do to ensure the “S” in BRICS gains similar advantages?


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