Why We Need Plain English More Than Ever Right Now

By Lauren Carter

More and more people are using and learning English each year, whether that’s natively or as a second or third language. Do you have any idea how many native English speakers there are? What about those who speak it as a second language? Or as a third, fourth, or tenth language? The numbers are pretty staggering and surprising if you’ve never seen them before. Let’s dive into it!

How many people use English in the world?

According to a 2018 article written by Anil Yadav, there were 1.121 billion native and non-native English speakers in 2018. If you’re a numbers kind of person like I am, that’s this many: 1,121,000,000. That means nearly 15% of the world’s population could speak English in 2018.

Any guesses about how it was split between native and non-native speakers?

This might surprise you, but there were 378 million native speakers and 743 million non-native English speakers. That’s nearly double the amount of non-native speakers!

How many people use English in Australia?

Unfortunately I couldn’t find data on the split between native and non-native speakers in Australia, but I found some information about English proficiency in Australia.

According to the 2016 Census, there were 17,020,420 people in Australia who spoke only English at home. There were a further 4,888,527 people who spoke another language at home as well as English, but 819,922 of those didn’t speak English well or at all.

So, here are the stats in percentages:

  • Nearly 73% of the population were monolingual (only spoke English)
  • 17% of the population were multilingual (spoke another language) and also spoke English well or very well
  • Nearly 4% of the population were multilingual but couldn’t speak English well or at all

(The extra 6% or so didn’t respond to the question.)

Why do so many people speak and learn English?

You might think the reason that so many non-native English speakers learn English is to get a better job or have a higher quality of life. And sure, that might be true for some people, but not for others.

The real reason, though, is that English has become the dominant language of the world. This has happened through how English has been used throughout the world. English initially started to spread when the British Empire colonised about a quarter of the world. And once it got going, it’s basically been impossible to stop. English has now become the dominant language in business, international trade, and technology. So, it makes sense that so many speak it and want to learn it.

English has also been influenced by lots of different languages, so there are many English words that are derived from other languages. Sometimes the spelling is changed to comply with English rules (Ha! Whatever they are! ๐Ÿ˜‰), and other times the spelling remains nearly identical. Here are some examples:

  • Latin: de facto, pro bono, vice versa
  • French: debris, queue, parachute
  • Greek: galaxy, panic, sarcasm
  • Old Norse: sky, egg, wrong
  • German: children, noodle, kindergarten
  • Arabic: tahini, couscous, hummus
  • Dutch: aardvark, hoist, freight
  • Czech: pistol, robot, polka
  • Chinese: tofu, wok, soy
  • Hindi: cheetah, jungle, shampoo
  • Spanish: tornado, cafeteria, ranch
  • Swedish: ombudsman, smorgasbord, orienteering

Why is knowing all this important for plain English?

There are nearly double the amount of non-native English speakers in the world compared to native English speakers. That means that there are tonnes of people who have had to learn English. Not only have they had to do that, but they’ve also had to navigate English’s crazy spelling system, which has been influenced by languages such as the ones above. And this isn’t just an issue for non-native English speakers. If you’re a monolingual English speaker in Australia, that doesn’t mean that your literacy skills are perfect. In fact, just over 40% of Australia’s workforce don’t have the literacy skills to navigate everyday life.

If you’ve ever learned another language, you’ll know how difficult it is. Through my own experience, I’ve found that there are often gaps in our language skills. For example, I can read folk stories in Mandarin better than I can have a general conversation with someone. But just because I can read stories, doesn’t mean my reading is perfect โ€” I can’t read a newspaper, and I really struggle reading menus. I’ve also found myself reading and understanding individual words but then not actually comprehending them when they’re put together in the sentence.

With all this in mind, you should assume that not everyone will understand every grammar point or spelling rule in English. Also keep in mind that just because someone speaks well, it doesn’t mean they can read or write well (and vice-versa).

How can I advocate for more plain English?

So then, what’s the best way to increase plain English and support plain English? Here are a few ideas:

Call it out

If you think something is difficult to read or understand, say something. This is easier when you’re in a perceived position of power, but even if you’re not you can be brave and say something. You can also do this in a kind way too. No need to be rude about it. Simply say you’re coming at this with the best intentions for the organisation or team.

Help people understand

Many monolingual English speakers don’t understand how difficult it is to have literacy issues, whether that’s in their first or additional language. If you have experience learning a second language or have had issues with literacy in your first language (or a friend or family member has), share that experience with others. For example, I remember how I couldn’t read menus at all when I went to China the first time. This experience now helps me understand the difficulties people with low literacy face every day.

Be compassionate

Correct me if I’m wrong, but people generally don’t say “hmmm, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to write something in a really difficult way so our students with low English literacy can’t understand it” ๐Ÿ˜œ. Difficult texts usually come from lack of education and awareness around language use. If something is written in a convoluted or overly wordy way, there’s no need to get frustrated at it โ€” getting annoyed doesn’t serve us here. Instead, we can calmly bring it to someone’s attention and point out some of the problematic words and structures.

Be a role model

And lastly, use plain English in your own communication as much as possible. I’ve seen this happen with me โ€” when I started using plain English more, others started copying it subconsciously. Obviously, this doesn’t happen with every single person, but it happens enough that those who are interested in communicating more effectively with others will change the way they communicate too. They might even overtly ask you for tips โ€” be sure to send them here to join in the fun!

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