Avatar photo

Peter Millett

Ambassador to Libya, Tripoli

Part of UK in Libya

28th October 2016 Tripoli, Libya

The Power of English

English is the most widely spoken language in the world.  Chinese is number one for the number of native speakers, but with 400 million mother-tongue speakers and at least as many using it as a second language, English has become the world’s main communication tool.

How did a language brought to Britain by settlers from northern Germany become so widely spoken?  Part of the reason is its flexibility and willingness to absorb new words from other parts of the world.  We speak a melange of motley words of mongrel origin.

The language spoken by the Angles and Saxons 1,500 years ago was very different from the language we speak now.  It has gone through massive changes.  The invasion by the Normans in 1066 brought many French words of Latin and Greek origin.  So we have sheep (Old English) and mutton (French).

Modern English evolved around 500 years ago when Shakespeare was writing.  He invented hundreds of new words and phrases, many of which are in common use today.  Words like ‘lonely’, ‘hurry’ and ‘majestic’ had not been used before.  And well-known phrases like ‘wild goose chase’ and ‘a tower of strength’ first appeared in his plays.

In later years, English adopted words from Spanish, like guerrilla; from the Caribbean, like barbecue; and from India, like pyjamas. There are many words from Arabic too: coffee, cotton, sugar and algebra. It is this absorption capacity that makes English so rich and fascinating, capable of great poetry and elegance, but also open to puns, nuances and doubles entendres.

In the last few years, globalisation and the growth of the Internet has made English the lingua franca of business, aviation and even diplomacy.  Most major multinational companies use English to ensure that all their offices in different countries can talk to each other.  Pilots have to use English to communicate with air traffic controllers. And in Brussels, European diplomats negotiate with each other in English.

This growth has led to the development of a shortened, simpler English with a limited vocabulary of around 1,500 words (compared with over 600,000 in the Oxford English Dictionary).

Some people might lament the simplification of English.  But if it helps people to communicate, it isn’t a problem.

The growth of English makes our language a valuable tool for soft power, ie enabling us to make friends and influence people, not through military might but through culture.  Across the world, people want to study English to help them get on in their studies or in their careers.  The importance of English will not diminish with Brexit.

This drive to learn gives native English speakers an advantage.   And it is no surprise many students want to learn English from the British Council rather than other native speakers.

To serve this demand, the British Council works to create understanding between the people of the UK and other countries by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. The Council operates in 100 countries across the world in the fields of arts and cultureEnglish languageeducation and civil society. Each year they reach over 20 million people face-to-face and more than 500 million people online, via broadcasts and publications.

In Libya, the Council works with universities and schools to promote English, including a range of examinations and qualifications. They have developed many innovative ways to promote English, for example through radio programmes, Facebook and Twitter. Their work goes beyond the language and includes outreach to communities through programmes such as Young Arab Voices that helps train young people to set up their own debate clubs, reinforcing their ability to discuss subjects of their own choosing in a mature and dignified manner.

Homer Simpson said: “English! Who needs that? I’m never going to England.”  No, but for many people, English is the language of opportunity.

2 comments on “The Power of English

  1. First off I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question that
    I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was interested to find out
    how you center yourself and clear your head
    prior to writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just
    seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are
    usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations
    or hints? Appreciate it!

  2. The UK collaboration plays a vital role in stabilizing Libya and bring more desire for Libyan people to strongly learn English.

Comments are closed.

About Peter Millett

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as Ambassador to Libya. Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015. He was High Commissioner to…

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as
Ambassador to Libya.
Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015.
He was High Commissioner to Cyprus from 2005 – 2010.
He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British
diplomatic missions overseas.
From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens.
From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO.
From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK
Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing
the UK on all energy and nuclear issues.
From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.
Peter was born in 1955 in London.  He is married to June Millett and
has three daughters, born in 1984, 1987 and 1991.  
His interests include his family, tennis and travel.