Importance of English During the Twentieth Century

All Ph.D. theses in physical and social sciences in India are written in English and the medium of instruction in higher institutions of science and engineering is English all over the country. English is the sole official language of a large number of small countries like Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Liberia, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, Fiji, and Trinidad and Tobago and it is the associate official language of countries like Pakistan, Brunei, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Swaziland, and Malta.

Though the future of English has become uncertain in Hongkong since the transfer of power in 1997, it has had a joint official status with Chinese there as well. Though Singapore has been following a bilingual system of education since the 1950s, English is the language used there for governmental communication and court proceedings.

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More than 300 million people use English as their mother tongue, more than 300 million people use it as a second language and more than 100 million people use it as a foreign language. Not only in countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya but even in countries like China and Japan there has been a great enthusiasm for learning English.

Of all the language families in the world these days, the Indo-European family has the largest number of users and of all the languages in the Indo-European family; English is used by the largest number of people.

The only language in the world which has a larger number of users than English is Chinese. Summing up the importance of English in the twentieth century, Crystal has said the following in his Encyclopedia of English:

English is used as an official or semi-official language in over 60 countries and has a prominent place in a further 20. It is either dominant or well established in all six continents. It is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, medicine, diplomacy, sports, international competitions, pop music, and advertising.

Over two-thirds of the scientists write in English. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. Of all the information in the world’s electronic retrieval system, 80% is stored in English. English radio programmes are received by over 150 million in 120 countries.

Over 50 million children study English as an additional language at primary level; over 80 million study it at secondary level (these figures exclude China). In any one year the British Council helps a quarter of a million foreign students to learn English in various parts of the world.

One of the interesting things that happened during the twentieth century was the indigenization of English in countries like India and Nigeria. Authors like Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Vikram Seth in India and authors like Chinua Achebe in Nigeria attained great heights of literary excellence in their novels written in English.

The novels written by these authors were widely read and admired not only in their own countries but also by native users of English all over the world. Commenting on the use of English in what is now known as Indo-Anglian literature, K. R. S. Iyengar, an Indian critic, said the following:

Indian writing in English is one of the voices in which India speaks. It is a new voice no doubt but it is as much Indian as others.

What Iyengar said about the status of English in India is equally true about the status of English in many other countries like Nigeria where English is used only as a second language.