Meet the English Language: History, Culture and FAQ for Language Learners
English has become the international language with the widest reach.
At least two billion people speak English, and you can find them on every continent (even explorers in Antarctica).
I learned English as a second language and it has been useful to me almost every single day, so I wanted to share some of what I have learned along the way and introduce you to what English really is.
With this post, I will take you through the English language as a whole—from its characteristics to its culture and even some FAQ!
- What Is English?
- Varieties of English
- English Culture
- Why Learning English Can Change Your Life
- FAQ About English
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
What Is English?
English is the most widely spoken language in the world. While it originated from the United Kingdom, it has now become the native language of the United States, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.
It doesn’t end there, though. More than 60 countries across the world recognize English as an official language. In fact, the majority of people who know English aren’t even native speakers—they learned it as a secondary language! This makes it no surprise that English is the top choice for foreign language learning.
The story of English
How did English become so popular, anyway?
Well, it didn’t happen by chance.
The story of English goes way, way back to at least 400 AD, when Germanic tribes invaded Britain. One of these tribes had a language called “Anglisc,” which English is named after. The intermingling of these tribes led to Old English, which sounds very cool, but is wildly different from the English that we know.
As more conquerors rushed into Britain, languages like French and Old Norse were added to the mix, leading to Middle English, which was used around 1100-1500.
English as we know it has really only been around since the 1800s, as this was the time its influence began to expand. The exploration of other lands by the British Empire brought English to hundreds of different civilizations.
Colonization only expanded this influence more, as the British controlled many of these civilizations and made English the primary language. At the peak of colonization, the Brits had control over a quarter of the globe, so it’s no wonder how English has become so widespread!
We might be past the age of empires now, but there are more English speakers than ever, and the language is still evolving.
The English writing system
Compared to grammar and pronunciation, the simplest part of English would probably be the writing system.
Like many other European languages, English follows the Roman or Latin alphabet. This consists of 26 letters, ranging from A to Z:
Letters can be either vowels or consonants. A, E, I, O and U are vowels, while everything else is a consonant.
Because there are so few letters yet so many sounds you can make in English, each letter can have more than one possible sound. For example, the A’s in lack and lake are pronounced differently!
The basic features
I could go on about the quirks of the English language, but if I had to choose, these are the ones you absolutely should know:
- Words aren’t always pronounced as they’re spelled. Bazaar and bizarre sound the same and the letter combination ough can be pronounced in ten different ways depending on the word!
- Stress is important. In all English words, there’s a syllable that’s stressed or emphasized. Stress the wrong syllable, and it’ll sound strange!
- Conjugations are less complicated. Unlike many other languages, English doesn’t change the endings of verbs, adjectives and nouns as much. Most nouns don’t have a gender either, unless they’re people or animals.
- It usually follows the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure. Word order in English is pretty consistent. Here’s what that looks like: I (subject) bought (verb) ice cream (object).
These are just some of the things that make English so unique!
Varieties of English
English seems to be a pretty consistent language. After all, you have standardized dictionaries and grammar books and fluent English speakers from all over the world can understand each other well.
Although most things are consistent across the board, there are countless varieties of English.
Colonization led to different regions picking up the language while giving it their own unique twist.
Today, English continues to change and diversify because of globalization. As more people learn English all over the world, they contribute to the rich, growing tapestry of English varieties.
British and American English
British and American English are the most prominent forms of English—other English varieties grew from these two. When you’re taking a class or going through a textbook in English, the focus is likely to be on either of these:
- British English is spoken in the United Kingdom. It’s the oldest type of English because that’s where English originally came from.
- North American English emerged when the British Empire colonized the US. It’s now a native language of the US and Canada and it’s also the most widespread variety in the world.
If you learn one, you’ll understand the other easily! It is important to note that there are differences in some spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary and slang.
Here is an example of how British English and American English may differ:
British English: I have crisps and yogurt in my flat.
American English: I have chips and yogurt in my apartment.
There are even further variations within these two dialects of English. For example, Southern American English has a distinct drawl and some different slang. In the UK, you might also hear multiple accents, such as Scottish, Geordie and Yorkshire.
Other English Varieties
Here are some of the other common varieties of English:
- Australian English — This is the first language of at least 18 million people in Australia. It’s influenced by both British and American English, but it also has unique pronunciation (right sounds like “roight”).
- Irish English — Also known as Hiberno-English, this variety from Ireland mixes English with some Gaelic. If someone says they’re “having the craic” in Irish English, that means they’re having fun!
- New Zealand English — English is an official language in New Zealand and it sounds very similar to Australian English, except with a gentler twang. Vowels can be pronounced differently, with bet sounding like “bit.”
- Scottish English — Scottish English tends to feature some words in Scots, with unique words like crabbit (ill-tempered) and braw (great or awesome).
- South African English — English is spoken by around 10% of the people in South Africa, which is known for being a melting pot of languages. If you hear about robots in South African English, that might actually just be slang for traffic lights.
- Singaporean English — This is the standard form of English spoken in Singapore and it draws heavily from British English. It has some Malay and Chinese influences, so it can sound more syllable-timed than usual.
- Indian English — India has around 125 million English speakers, which makes it one of the largest English-speaking countries. Some unique phrases in Indian English include please revert (please reply) and prepone (the opposite of postpone).
There are many more varieties and dialects of English out there, from South American English to Philippine English. You might even have a specific English variety where you live!
There’s more to a language than words. Every language carries with it a fascinating culture—in English’s case, one that started more than a thousand years back.
Let’s explore the culture behind the English language:
Humor is a major part of English-speaking culture—thus all of the hit comedy movies, TV series and performances around. Humor in English tends to be very self-deprecating and often even dark.
Situational humor is also a favorite. Situational humor follows everyday situations and highlights how things might happen in an awkward or funny way. The best way to experience this type of humor is through sitcoms (situation comedies), which are a very popular genre in English television.
You might also get a good laugh with stand-up comedies, where a comedian gets in front of an audience and tells jokes directly.
Another form of English humor that seems to be common amongst most languages is playing around with words. Puns are simple but always get a good laugh. Here’s an example of an English pun:
What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.
As much as 55% of how we communicate is through body language and gestures. Here are a few gestures that are well understood in the English-speaking world:
- Thumbs up — The “Like” button on English social media platforms usually shows a thumbs-up sign. This is because it means “Okay!” or “Yes!”
- Shrug — This casual gesture is best used among friends—avoid using it at work because it might seem rude! It means, “I don’t know,” “I don’t care” or “anything goes.”
- High five — When you want to congratulate someone on doing a good job, you say “High five!” while holding your palm up. The other person then slaps their palm against yours.
Gestures come up a lot in English conversations, so knowing about them is a must for becoming fluent!
With all of the English-speaking countries out there, it’s hard to choose a single way to describe the food. If we look at the US and the UK, there is a passion for comfort food and hearty meals.
A go-to combination would be meat paired with potatoes or vegetables as a side dish. In the US specifically, you’ll find tons of steakhouses or even people having a barbecue or cookout featuring burgers, hot dogs and other easy dishes in their backyards!
Other classic dishes include apple pies, mac and cheese and bagels. For something really mouthwatering, take a look at these iconic foods across the US.
Something that many English cultures value is convenience. Almost every food establishment will offer a to-go option and there are more and more ways to have food delivered directly to you every day! Fast food is also very prominent. Many English cultures value being able to grab food quickly to be efficient with their time.
Turkey with cranberry sauce, Christmas trees decked out in ornaments, parades and colorful fireworks—English cultures love their holidays!
In the US, these are the three biggest holidays:
- Halloween — Halloween takes place on October 31. Expect to see kids dressed up in spooky costumes and knocking on your door for candies and other treats!
- Thanksgiving — Thanksgiving happens every fourth Thursday of November, and people celebrate by getting together with family and friends and having a huge feast. Roasted turkey is almost always on the menu.
- Christmas — This holiday is on December 25, but festivities usually start as early as late November (after Thanksgiving). There is a whole array of Christmas traditions, but the most notable is probably waking up on Christmas morning and opening gifts that were placed under the tree!
Fun fact: people sometimes have cookie parties on Christmas (and yes, it’s a party where people bring all sorts of cookies and swap).
If you had to plot on how to make a language spread around the world, the most effective tactic would have to be popular culture.
Even without going to any native English-speaking country, the majority of people worldwide know a lot about English pop culture, from being able to hum English songs to knowing references from movies or TV shows.
English pop culture often takes the cake for being the most widespread and appreciated by other cultures. Given that English is such a worldwide language, a lot of people are able to understand English music, movies, TV shows, books, podcasts, etc.
You can pick up on English very quickly just by looking at their pop culture, and it will be easily accessible!
Why Learning English Can Change Your Life
Now that we’ve gone through what English is, you might be wondering if English really is worth learning.
I’m going to answer that with a definite yes. Whatever your goals or background, English is one of the most useful languages that you can learn.
I’m from a country where English isn’t a native language and being fluent in English has opened up so many opportunities for me. I’ve worked remotely with several companies around the world; made friends with people from Canada, Singapore and the UK; and found it easier to move around in other countries, including the US and Korea—all thanks to English.
Learning English has also exposed me to books, media and ways of thinking that expanded my worldview. I literally wouldn’t be the person that I am without English!
Wherever you are, learning English will give you a stronger connection to the rest of the world. On top of this, a lot of material in other languages is only translated into English, so it’s a powerhouse of a language.
You don’t need perfect fluency, either—even just being able to understand some English can pay off a lot.
To sum it up, here’s what learning English can do for you:
- Give you access to interesting entertainment and media, from bestselling books to wacky social media channels
- Help you learn more efficiently through the vast amount of resources and tutorials in English
- Expose you to more opportunities and potentially broaden your career
- Make traveling more convenient because there are likely to be people who understand English in other countries
- Allow you to connect with more people worldwide and have a wider reach online
If that sounds exciting, then give it a go!
FAQ About English
Since you’ve read this far, you’re probably curious about or already learning English. Here’s a quick guide to answer your most pressing questions about English:
Which variety of English should I learn?
This is a usual question among English learners because there are so many varieties of English! The two most common forms of English that people choose to learn formally are American and British English.
Whichever one you pick, you’ll still be able to understand the other eventually. If you’re having a hard time deciding, consider which would fit better with your goals:
- Are you planning to move to another country?
- Are you going to study or work abroad?
- Will you be taking an English exam?
- If you won’t be moving, which variety of English is used more where you live?
Between these two, more people end up picking American English because it’s the most widespread globally.
How hard is it to learn English?
It depends on how close your native language is to English, but compared to many other languages, English isn’t usually considered too difficult to learn. You can reach a basic level fast, but it does take a long time to master.
What people often find challenging about English is it’s not very consistent with spelling and grammar rules. It also has one of the largest vocabularies.
Still, it can be easier to learn than languages such as German and Russian because the grammar isn’t as complicated and there are fewer conjugations. That means less memorization!
English is also relatively easy due to the expansive amount of resources available to you. So much material is available in English, so you won’t have to look very long to find something to study. You also certainly won’t run out of conversation partners—you can even just go online and someone to practice talking with.
How long does it take to learn English?
There’s no hard and fast answer to this, but people on average take around 500-600 hours to reach an upper intermediate level. This is usually good enough for getting around and having smooth conversations in most situations. If we do the math, that’s equal to studying English for around two hours every day for a year.
If you want to be proficient, you may have to dedicate more time as that requires about 1000 hours of studying.
Of course, everyone is different and this will vary per person! The type of language you already speak has a big role to play. If you’re fluent in a European language, you might get the hang of English more easily. On the other hand, if you speak languages like Mandarin or Arabic, it’ll take longer because there are fewer similarities with English.
It will also be easier for you if you have already learned a language before as you will know what works for your study habits and what doesn’t!
Which jobs value English?
Because of globalization and the internet, it’s not dramatic to say that knowing English will benefit you in most jobs.
More companies are turning to location-independent or remote work. With this setup, you might end up working with people from different countries—and English will come in handy (or even be required!). Even if you are still working in a traditional environment, English is becoming a more sought out skill every day.
If your job involves creating content, running an online store, or dealing with customers and clients around the world, then knowing English will be extremely helpful. English is also a must in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries because it’s such a common language.
If you are looking at any kind of international career, such as in diplomacy, English skills will be a must! In general, any job with international exposure, from finance, to journalism and academic research will value English.
Which English language exam should I take?
Most official exams in English are pricey, so you’ll probably only take them if you need formal proof that you can speak English.
These are the top three English language exams:
- TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
- IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
- Cambridge (Cambridge Assessment English)
If you are planning to study abroad or immigrate, I suggest you take the TOEFL or the IELTS as they are the most widely accepted exams.
More countries look at TOEFL scores, but if you’re moving to the UK, then take the IELTS instead. Just note that your exam results for both the TOEFL and IELTS expire every two years!
A UK and Europe-friendly alternative would be the Cambridge exam, which gives you a test score that doesn’t expire. This exam follows the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
What’s the best way to learn English?
The best way to learn English is to turn it into a habit. Different study methods work for different people, but consistency is key for everyone.
If you dedicate time for English every day, you’ll make progress—and you’ll also start forming your own personalized approach to learning.
Here are some techniques that you can try out to boost your learning journey:
- Learn the most common English vocabulary words. You can make these easier to remember with a flashcard app.
- Have some textbooks and a grammar book for reference. This can give you a bit of structure, especially when starting out!
- Delve into native material that’s close to your level. The more authentic material you’re exposed to, the more intuitive English can become for you. FluentU is a great resource as it has a wide range of authentic videos that will provide you with study material and learning tools.
- Check in regularly with someone who speaks English. This can be through a class, tutor, or conversation partner.
Give these a try and find what works best for you!
English is a fascinating language with so much potential to change lives and connect people from all over the world.
What we’ve covered here is only a glimpse—but hopefully it has inspired you in some way. Whichever stage of the English language journey you’re in, there’s always something new to discover.