There are approximately 7.8 billion people on Earth. While at times it feels like everyone speaks English, in reality only 4.9% do. Despite English’s unofficial position as the language of business, it is only spoken as a first language in a relatively small number of countries. That said, it is the official language of choice in a number of countries and widely spoken as a second language in many others. So how many people really speak English and where is it spoken?  

Where can we find native English speakers?

Approximately 379 million people speak English as a first language. The USA is home to the largest number of native English speakers. The other obvious territories are the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

From there we step predominantly into the former territories of the British colonies. Approximately 30 more countries speak English natively, many of which were colonised by the British empire. From Anguilla to Gibraltar to the British Indian Ocean Territory, these countries not only speak but recognise also English as their official language. Other countries include Trinidad and Tabago, Guam, The United States Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Guyana and more. 

Which countries recognise English as an official language?

As a result of Britain’s extensive colonisation, from the Americas to Africa and further afield to Asia, English has become the official language of certain countries by default. From places like Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Singapore and the Philippines, English is recognised as the official, though it is not necessarily the primary, language spoken among the populace. For these countries through their long history with Britain, it made sense to have English as the official language of communication on the international stage and in commerce. 

Let’s not forget about the number of people learning English as a second language. According to the British Council, 1 billion people could be learning English at any one time, such is its popularity.

How popular is the English language? 

English is the third most popular native language in the world. With first and second place going to Mandarin Chinese and Spanish respectively. As a result it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, The European Union (despite the fact that only two countries are native speakers) and many more international organisations and businesses. 

The rise in popularity of English is most clearly visible in the EU. In the mid-seventies French was the dominant language. However, with membership of Finland and Sweden in the 1990’s and Central and Eastern European countries in the 2000’s, English took over as the dominant language and is now one of the three key languages in the EU, along with French and German. 

Waves were made when Britain announced that it would be leaving the EU. Questions arose among some as to whether English would continue to be an official language post Brexit. However, as English is now considered a Lingua Franca, meaning a common or trade language, and the majority of employees within the system rely heavily on it, it is very unlikely to be removed from its position of prominence.

What is the future of the English language?

Simply put, the future looks bright. Since the early 20th century, English’s cultural impact has continued to grow globally. From the inception of Hollywood in the 1920’s to the aftermath of Second World War. Despite this war seeing a depletion in the number of British colonies, it appeared to have an opposite effect on the popularity of the English language. Finally with the dawn of the internet, English appropriation and cultural understanding has spread to even the tiniest corners of the world. It may only be spoken fluently by 4.9% of the population but English’s dominance continues to rise. 

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