Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca, is the world's mostly widely used language and in some instances the required international language of communications, science, information technology, business, seafaring, aviation, entertainment, radio, and diplomacy. Its spread beyond the British Isles began with the growth of the English overseas possessions, and by the 19th century the reach of the British Empire was global.
As a result of overseas colonization from the 16th to 19th centuries, it became the dominant language in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The growing economic and cultural influence of the US and its status as a global superpower since the Second World War have significantly accelerated the spread of the language across the planet. English replaced German as the dominant language of science-related Nobel Prize laureates during the second half of the 20th century. It achieved parity with French as a language of diplomacy at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919. By the time of the foundation of the United Nations after World War II, English had become pre-eminent and is now the language of diplomacy and international relations.
A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing; as a consequence, more than a billion people speak English to at least a basic level. It is one of six official languages of the United Nations.
One impact of the growth of English is the reduction of native linguistic diversity in many parts of the world. The influence of English continues to play an important role inlanguage attrition. Conversely, the natural internal variety of English along with creoles and pidgins have the potential to produce new distinct languages from English over time.
Approximately 359 million people speak English as their first language. English today is probably the second largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese. However, when combining native and non-native speakers it is probably the most commonly spoken language in the world, though possibly second to a combination of the Chinese languages (depending on whether distinctions in the latter are classified as "languages" or "dialects").
Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly from 470 million to more than a billion depending on how literacy or mastery is defined and measured. Linguistics professor David Crystal calculates that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1.
The countries with the highest populations of native English speakers are, in descending order: the United States (229 million), the United Kingdom (60 million), Canada (18.2 million), Australia (15.5 million), Nigeria (4 million), Ireland (3.8 million), South Africa (3.7 million), and New Zealand (3.6 million) in a 2006 Census.
Countries such as the Philippines, Jamaica and Nigeria also have millions of native speakers of dialect continua ranging from an English-based creole to a more standard version of English. Of those nations where English is spoken as a second language, India has the most such speakers. Crystal claims that, combining native and non-native speakers, India now has more people who speak or understand English than any other country in the world.
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