English Language Day was first celebrated in 2010, alongside Arabic Language Day, Chinese Language Day, French Language Day, Russian Language Day and Spanish Language Day. These are the six official languages of the United Nations, and each has a special day, designed to raise awareness of the history, culture and achievements of these languages.

This day was chosen because it is thought to be Shakespeare’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death. As well as being the English language’s most famous playwright, Shakespeare also had a huge impact on modern-day English. At the time he was writing, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the English language was going through a lot of changes and Shakespeare’s creativity with language meant he contributed hundreds of new words and phrases that are still used today. For example, the words ‘gossip’, ‘fashionable’ and ‘lonely’ were all first used by Shakespeare. He also invented phrases like ‘break the ice’, ‘all our yesterdays’, ‘faint-hearted’ and ‘love is blind’. Can you guess what they mean?

The origins of English

The story of the English language began in the fifth century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain and brought their languages with them. Later, Scandinavian Vikings invaded and settled with their languages too. In 1066 William I, from modern-day France, became king, and Norman-French became the language of the courts and official activity. People couldn’t understand each other at first, because the lower classes continued to use English while the upper classes spoke French, but gradually French began to influence English.

An estimated 45 per cent of all English words have a French origin. By Shakespeare’s time, Modern English had developed, printing had been invented and people had to start to agree on ‘correct’ spelling and vocabulary

The spread of English

The spread of English all over the world has an ugly history but a rich and vibrant present. During the European colonial period, several European countries, including England, competed to expand their empires. They stole land, labour and resources from people across Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. By the time former British colonies began to gain independence in the mid-20th century, English had become established in their institutions.

Many brilliant writers from diverse places across Africa, the Caribbean and Asia had started writing in English, telling their stories of oppression. People from all over the world were using English to talk and write about justice, equality, freedom and identity from their own perspectives. The different varieties of English created through this history of migration and colonisation are known as World Englishes.

More than 1.75 billion people speak English worldwide – that’s around 1 in 4 people around the world. English is being used more and more as a way for two speakers with different first languages to communicate with each other, as a ‘lingua franca’. For many people, the need to communicate is much more important than the need to sound like a native speaker. As a result, language use is starting to change. For example, speakers might not use ‘a’ or ‘the’ in front of nouns, or they might make uncountable nouns plural and say ‘informations’, ‘furnitures’ or ‘co-operations’.

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