Problems Defining the Number of English Speakers in the World

Depending on who you speak to, there are currently anywhere between 1500 and 2000 million English speakers in the world. That’s a discrepancy of 500 million people. The obvious question is: Why does such a discrepancy even exist? There are a couple of big reasons and many smaller ones. For now I’ll stick to the big ones.

As I wrote in a previous post, much of what we take for granted about languages is based on largely arbitrary and long-standing political distinctions, meaning that the line between languages, varieties and dialects is not as clear as you might think. American English and Australian English are recognisable as varieties of English, but other, more exotic varieties — like Singlish — are problematic. Singlish is more linguistically diverse from standard English than American and Australian English are (at a very basic level imagine sticking bits of Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, a few others — basically unfamiliar Asian words — onto standard English); but despite its linguistic diversity, and the fact that many English speakers have trouble understanding it, there are political and economic reasons why Singlish is considered a variety of English and not a language in its own right.

There are no figures for the number of Singlish speakers in the world, but most estimates guess that it’s about half the population of Singapore. So that’s already 2-3 million people who, depending on how you define the criteria, do or not speak English.

Even if you come to a consensus about what constitutes English, you then need to work out who can actually speak it. We’re talking here partly about proficiency. It’s very difficult, for example, to specify a level of fluency at which point a person stops being a non-English speaker and becomes an English speaker. Such things cannot be measured on a scale (the only definitive points on such a scale would be at the extremes, meaning that the only people you can define with any confidence are fluent English speakers and people who can’t speak any English at all). Anything in between is murky and ill-defined and generally unhelpful no matter how many English teaching methods try to define it. Few people would argue, for example, that being able to say a couple of words in English (even if they’re used in context) denotes an English speaker; equally few people would argue that native-like fluency is a requirement. Clearly, the line is somewhere in between. As yet nobody has come up with a convincing argument about where that line should be.

When you’re talking about languages, proficiency itself is not a well-defined concept. Some people, for example, are proficient in one or more aspects of English but not in others. Here we’re talking mostly about people who use English as a lingua franca — people who use English for a purpose. The obvious purpose is for business, where English has become a convenient tool through which countries with no common language can trade. And as the economics of capitalism dictate, the rise of English as the world’s lingua franca has lead to the rise of language schools that promise to teach something you can just go ahead and call ‘Business English’. Companies like Wall Street English promote a brand of English that’s less about teaching students to speak English and more about teaching students how to conduct business in English (as is clear in Wall Street English’s course descriptions):
At this lingua stage, students can hold a conversation with a good degree of fluency, read simple books, newspapers, web content, and technical documents, and write short letters and business reports. With UpperWaystagePro, students are taught skills that range from handling important calls in the manager’s absence to learning recruiting and interviewing techniques for managerial staff.
Companies like Wall Street English prepare their students to carry out interviews or answer business calls, but it’s not clear how well the courses prepare students to deal with other aspects of English. It’s feasible (if unlikely) that Wall Street English students, outside of business contexts, are left floundering and unable to communicate with other English speakers. All of which means that the two million students the company has taught theoretically can use English, but can theoretically use English only to conduct business.

It’s not clear how students of programmes like Wall Street English feel about their own English proficiency, but it’s certainly true that determining the number of English speakers in the world is affected by the way people relate personally to the language and whether those people consider themselves English speakers. The idea of an individual person’s relationship to English gets even more complicated when the person is a native of a former colonial country. I’m talking here about India, where English is an official language, a lingua franca and a reminder of India’s colonial past. And so the way that Indians personally relate to English is one of the main reasons why estimates of English speakers in India can vary from 30 million to 300 million (you can’t, after all, define somebody as an English speaker if that person refuses to identify as an English speaker — or can you?).

As with anything in English — and in language generally — there is not likely to be a consensus on what constitutes an English speaker any time soon. Which is why it’s probably safer to stick to the obvious facts and say that English is the second most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese. But then how do you define what constitutes Chinese(1)?

Notes

  1. No kidding. Do Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese exist as independent languages or are they varieties of what collectively can be called Chinese?
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