A few years ago, me and a group of Spaniards were temporarily stranded in Turkey on our way to India. I can still remember the indignance of one of the men toward the airline employee who was charged with the unfortunate task of conveying to us that we’d be stuck in Istanbul for the forseeable future. “They could at least send someone who spoke English!” he said (even though we all got the gist that we weren’t going anywhere). I remember being struck by this, thinking it strange to hear from a Spaniard and not from the mouth of an American, Australian or Brit. He didn’t seem to expect the airline employee to speak his native language (Spanish), but he was mystified at what he considered subpar English-language skills from the airline employee.
Lingua francas are funny things – trade and diplomatic languages that connect people together by allowing communication between different groups who don’t usually have another way to communicate. Lingua francas are so useful, so envied and so despised all at once for their dominance in intercultural communication.
I’m certain you won’t be shocked to hear that the world’s current lingua franca is English. It’s widely used in tourism, commerce, government and science; it’s influence is felt in most corners of the globe. There are those who believe that Chinese will be the world’s next lingua franca. While this is certainly possible, English is far from done yet.
A number of lingua francas have held sway in certain regions and at certain times. In the Roman Empire, Latin and Greek were the dominant languages. Arabic was the lingua franca in the Islamic Empire. Even today Arabic is widely spoken in northern Africa. Until the 20th century, Chinese was the lingua franca in Asia (and it may be again). In Europe, French and Italian were both prominent over a number of centuries. Then as a result of Spanish, Portuguese and British colonialism, the Spanish, Portuguese and English languages were used on various continents, and still are. However, English has gone beyond its roots as a language of the former British Empire. It has spread and for the moment, proved its global strength.
It doesn’t matter if you love it or hate it or even if your skills are perfect, the English language is simply a current reality. It allows many people to communicate when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. And that’s an important feat.