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English as an International Language

Updated on May 23, 2014
Kachru’s three concentric circles
Kachru’s three concentric circles


Starting with a premise that English language of this day and age is an international language, teaching this kind of language calls for unique language teaching techniques and goals. It is thought by some that an international language is a language that is spoken by large number of native speakers. However, one language does not become international unless it is spoken by large number of native speakers of some other languages as well, in that way serving as a language of wider communication. In that sense, English is an international language.

More on international language

A language is considered global when it reaches the point that it’s recognized in every country thus making it an official language of the country or the prior language taught as foreign language at schools. The role English language has in different countries is best shown in Kachru’s three concentric circles, Inner Circle being the countries where English is primary language, Outer Circle being the countries where English is a second language, while the Expanding Circle are the countries where English is widely studied as a foreign language. Due to migration, English spread was great in the Inner Circle. In the Outer Circle, the spread of English was mainly the result of the colonization of English-speaking nation. In the Expanding Circle, English is/was spread by learning it as a foreign language. Today, the shifting of English language in different countries of the world is highly present since many countries in Expanding Circle are using English for international communication and within their own country, like the countries of the Outer Circle. When it comes to the number of users of English language, varieties of sources have to be used. Also, it is somewhat problematic to decide how fluent a person must be, to be considered an English user. Taking all of this into account, Crystal claims that conservative estimation of native and native-like speakers of English language would be 670 million. Even though it is not clear exactly how many users of English are there, it is considered that the number of people who are familiar with English language is growing.

Features of an international language

Smith contends that English as an international language is used both in global and local sense, global meaning the use of English for international communication and local meaning the use of English in wider communication of multilingual societies. Such as that, English use does no longer relate to the culture of the countries of Inner Circle, and, on the other hand, in a local sense, is linked to the culture of the countries in which it is used. Globally, one of its purposes is to provide the possibility to become familiar with cultures and ideas of speakers of different languages.

English dominance in important spheres of life as we know it, such as international relations, the mass media, international travel, international safety, education and communication, is, according to Crystal, evidence that English is an international language. Graddol says that with constant growing number of people using English as their second language, second language speakers will inevitably surpass the number of first language speakers in the future. Children learn English at schools as their foreign language, but it is hard to become fluent with just few hours of English teaching a week, so usually, one must seek education in private schools if one wants to become proficient in English. This means that English can’t completely be discarded as lingua franca, since those more financially secure will be able to seek proficiency level of language. Brutt-Griffler coined the term ‘macroacquisition’ explaining that it is not migration that is responsible for the spread of language but rather its acquisition by many individuals, resulting not in monolingualism but large-scale bilingualism. Urban migration is one of the reasons why English is spreading so fast with urban areas being the focus of linguistic change. This can result in acquisition of English, especially among those more financially secure and in creation of new English varieties as well.

Reasons for the spread of English

In 19th and 20th centuries, British and American colonialism, and migration of English-speaking people were of great importance for the spread of English. Moreover, Britain was the leader of the industrial revolution. English was also the language of the leading economic power – USA. This resulted in English becoming language prior to any other in industries that affected all aspects of society – the press, advertising, broadcasting, motion pictures, sound recording, transport and communication. Summed up, one of the main reasons why English is spreading so fast is because it has a variety of specific purposes.

Factors that may impede the spread of English

One of the major factors that can hinder the spread of English is the lack of interest of individuals to acquire more proficient level of the language, mostly in Extended Circle countries. English may lose its position as the prior foreign language taught at schools, be it from competition with other languages or the need for the language of minority to be taught, or even political pressure to learn the language of the neighboring country. It is also possible that technological improvement can lead to the decline of use of English as the main Internet language by perfecting translation tools. There also has to be economic support in order to learn English language. Finally, negative attitude towards English language and English speaking countries can disturb the spread of English.
Negative effects of the spread of English

It has been discussed that English language can reduce the use of native languages, even leading to their complete extinction. There is also the concern that English-speaking countries promote English in order to dominate over periphery countries – in many cases developing countries. Further more, there is an issue regarding the relationship between the language and the culture, resulting in local traditions being replaced with western ones, like Christmas in Japan, or Halloween in Chile. Most worrying is the fact that in many countries English is learned only by those who can afford it thus limiting the possibilities for good jobs and higher education for those who can’t.


An international language is considered to be a language that isn’t connected to one country or nation, but is used globally and locally as a language of wider communication, developing alongside other languages. As mentioned, even though many think that the number of English users is only going to grow, there are some factors that can impede this growth, like translation technology, need to learn regional languages, lack of economic resources, negative attitude towards the language and culture and nations it is associated with. With this stated, it is apparent that the spread of English has both positive and negative implications. Whereas an international language can provide insight in different cultures, important information, and facilitate the economic development, there are also considerable risk and danger in this process, the most concerning being the promotion of social inequalities based on the level of language knowledge.

© 2014 Tanja Trkulja


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