English is widely acknowledged as the language of business and professional success. According to a Harvard Business Review (May 2012), there are about 1.75 billion people worldwide that speak English at a useful level. It also estimates that there are nearly 565 million people that use it on the internet. According to a report, British Council has predicted that this number will go up to 2 billion by 2020.
The reasons knowledge of English language is becoming inevitable can be classified into three – business or economics, academic and social.
First, the economics: English has higher economic value in the world than any other language. More and more organizations in the non-native English countries are making it mandatory, recognizing the fact that a company needs to be able to talk English if it is to globalize. Closer home in India, English is the de facto language of business as well. All major meetings and conferences are held in English. In fact, it is generally seen that North Indians can do business with South Indians only in English! Some studies suggest that people with better knowledge of English can earn 30% higher than those of similar technical competence but lower proficiency in English.
A similar situation exists in the academic world, particularly in India. The medium of instruction in most of the good academic institutions is English. Students need to be well-versed in English if they are to do well at any prestigious management or technical institute. Books published in English far outnumber those in other languages and most students are likely to have to deal with English language to study any subject at their respective institutions. Examinations like TOEFL and IELTS assess the students’ ability to function in an English-medium environment found in most of the prestigious universities abroad.
Then there are what might be called the social and general reasons. In the west, non-speakers of English may study English because they want to travel to an English-speaking country. In India, the motivators are deeper and more complex. Here, English is considered the language of the elite and has become a “social leveler”. A taxi driver once told me that he wanted to learn English because he felt “inadequate” when he could not understand the conversation in English of the passengers in his car. A housewife was studying English because her young son was embarrassed that she could not talk to his teachers in English at the Parents-Teacher meetings. My barber once told me that he was of the view that if a cop stopped him at a traffic signal for a traffic violation, he would be let off if he could speak to the cop in English!
Should we be worried about the predominance of English and whether it will sweep aside the other languages? Experience shows that this is unlikely. English is our second language, which allows us to function and create value in a larger business or social context. Our first language or our mother tongue will always be our first choice of communication in our immediate circle of friends and family.