Is the English language too powerful?

In 2016 I published the “Power Language Index”, a research note on the efficacy of languages. It was a systematic data-driven analysis using 20 indicators to compare the clout of the world’s languages. It tried to answer the question: which language best serves a person to engage in life from a global perspective?

The index was designed as a cardinal measure, meaning that the output – a number that ranges from zero (least powerful) to one (most powerful) – not only ranks the languages, but also indicates the magnitude with which they are more or less influential vis-à-vis another.

Not surprisingly, the index showed that English, with a score of 0.889, is most powerful. It is the world’s lingua franca. In second place is Mandarin at 0.411. So not only is English the most powerful language, it is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival.

However, even with such a dominant score, the index likely underestimated the power of Shakespeare’s tongue. For one, official data often do not pick up the fact that English is almost universally the second language in most countries. In today’s society, “bilingual” is usually taken to mean fluency in the home language and English.

Thus when strangers from different countries meet for the first time, the instinct is to ask the other party if they speak English. Similarly, English is often the medium used to teach a second language to a diverse group of foreigners. Moreover, English is a Latin script language, which makes it easier to learn for a majority of the world.

In some follow-up work on the efficacy of languages, the dominance of English is confirmed to be more prominent than first demonstrated. Indeed, when I set out to create the index, there were many significant challenges in constructing it, as often there is an imperfect mapping between languages and the indicators of the index.

For example, universities (which are part of the index) may operate in a language other than in the home language(s). This is especially true of global and research-intensive institutions. Universities may also offer programmes or degrees in English to attract an international student body. Wholly English language universities can even be found in non-Anglo countries.

In fact, given the dominance of English as the language of science, business and research, it is common in many settings for the home language to be used for “kitchen” conversations while professional interactions are in English.

Read more: World Economic Forum

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