eli5: Why is english the world wide language of communication?

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The era of the British Empire saw English being spread throughout Asia and Africa due to English colonies. They weren’t, for the most part, going to learn the local languages, so they simply had the locals learn English. Then, the American era began after WWII and they sort of reinforced that.


Once upon a time the United Kingdom had an empire of colonies across the whole world and taught people English there. That made English already a much more global language than any other (other countries also had colonies, but not across such a global territory. For instance, almost all of South America speaks Spanish, minus Brazil, but that’s because Spanish colonies were heavily concentrated in that part of the world – they did not have that global influence). And then in the 20th century we had radio and movies and television and music and ways to share all that around the world, and American culture and British culture became very popular, and so people got hooked on English, both because they had an easy-ish way to learn it and to better enjoy this media. So that’s where we are now.


As everyone has said, Empire. But more than that, it’s a universal language now. Majority of the world can either speak it or at least understand it. I asked a Swede one time and he said that the reason they learn it now is because no one else speaks Swedish. Everyone speaks English. If they don’t learn English, they can talk to other Swedish people and that’s about it.


According to my mother in the 50s in Italy the International diplomatic language was french, not English and that’s what she studied in school. What changed from that timeframe is NATO and the construction of a global market that trade in US dollars. The softer counterparts to these military and economic developments are the establishment of Hollywood and English as everyone’s culture and language.


Otto Von Bismark remarked during the Spanish-American war that the most significant event of the 20th century would be “the fact that the North Americans speak English.” Of all the colonial powers, England produced easily the most successful former colonies who all speak English. That has a lot to do with England being the supreme naval power in the world during the colonial era. Then it was the US as the world’s sole superpower during the rise of globalization, the age of information and the internet. Today roughly 40% of global GDP comes from the “anglosphere”