What was it Benjamin Disraeli said about lies, damned lies and statistics? The 19th century Prime Minster's assertion, popularised by American author Mark Twain, has sometimes never seemed truer than when related to the numbers on world languages.
As is the case with all big data, the answers inevitably depend upon the methods of measurement. Take the European Union's Eurobarometer, which asks people in which languages apart from their mother tongue can they hold a conversation. It's clear that people will judge themselves by different standards. One person's fluency is another's pidgin.
Then there's the US government, who when asking about languages in a census, states an approximate accuracy of 90%. In a country of approximately 311 million inhabitants, that's a margin of error of 31 million people. When it comes to measuring somewhere like India, home to hundreds of active dialects and over a billion people, the challenges are multiplied.
But amidst this swamp of statistics, we are able to ascertain some things. Chinese Mandarin is clearly the number one language for native speakers, who number approximately 800 million. But when that figure is combined with non-native speakers, English wins out. A report published by the British Council estimates that around two billion people will be learning English at any one time during the next decade. The accented English spoken when our students (who range from 90 different countries) take out a lifeboat onto the Bristol Channel or debate world crises in peace and conflict classes, attests to the enduring popularity of English as a language of learning.
With the dominant world economies being neatly split between BRIC and the sick over the past few years, received wisdom has been that English, as a language of commerce and culture was on a downward spiral. But before you start sending your young to Mandarin night classes or ordering a Michel Thomas tape to wrap up under the Christmas tree, it's worth drawing breath.
Now it's pretty apparent that the internet is going to be inherent to most career paths chosen by the next generation of school leavers. Statistics show (yes, them again, this time from Internet World Stats ), the powerhouse of publication online is the English language. English's standing at the top of the table is down in part to second-language speakers using the medium as their online tongue of choice. Wikipedia has ten times more English entries than Chinese, which languishes behind European languages like Polish, Swedish and Dutch in this barometer. Prof. Braj Kachru, who coined the term 'World English' claims in his book Asian Englishes that India and China combined have over half a billion "users" (be that in person or online) of English.
The anecdotal evidence we're seeing at UWC Atlantic College illustrates this trend. For fifty years now, we've educated students from over 100 countries and countless more dialects through the medium of English. Back in 1968, our students invented the prototype for the RIB speedboat, and whether they're out on the choppy south Wales coast or coasteering in the rugged surrounding countryside, our students can find themselves in potentially dangerous situations; situations in which clear and concise communication is key. They relish the opportunity to control their destinies through English.
That's why we've launched the Atlantic Pre-Diploma, a new pre-sixth form course designed for international students to improve their English for entry to a pre-university course delivered in English. As the world changes, we have to change, allowing younger pupils to walk the corridors of our castle home for the first time. The age range of the pupils may be different to our current cohort, but one thing remains the same- their thirst for the English language. However the world turns, it seems certain that an understanding of English is crucial, now or in the future.
For further information, visit www.atlanticcollege.org
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