Do you speak English?

How many native speakers of English are there altogether? Perhaps surprisingly, this is not so easy to decide. The figures cited vary between 400 and 500 million – a considerable difference. This is probably chiefly due to differences of opinion as to what should be included. Are pidgins and creoles derived from English considered to be varieties of English and included? Or are they languages of their own? It is even more difficult to be sure about the total for non-native speakers of English. Is native-speaker-like fluency the criterion, or is every beginner to be included? And even if we take a middle-of-the-road course, some small deviation may have considerable effects. In India, for example, the figures vary between 3% and 33%, in real terms between 30 million and 330 million. So all figures have to be taken with caution, including the relatively informed survey of the British Council, according to which one billion people (i.e. one thousand million) are engaged in learning English. This includes all learners. If we take, as a criterion, a medium level of conversational competence in handling domestic subject matters, we can take between one half and two thirds of these as non-native speakers of English. Taking averages of the most recent estimates, we can assume that about one third of the world’s population can now communicate in English. This is a lot, but it also means that two thirds of the world’s population cannot communicate in English. One does not have to travel far into the hinterland of a country to find reality. Populist claims about the universal spread of English have to be kept in perspective. The second important factor is that the ratio of native to non-native speakers of English keeps changing. It is not estimated to be about 1:4. The proportion of the world’s population with English as a first language will decline further in the years to come.  (Crystal, David: “A global language”, in: Seargeant, Philip & Swann, Joan (ed.): English in the World. History, Diversity, Change. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012: 154-6)

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