In Act I, scene iii of Richard II, the Duke of Norfolk is banished from England—sent into exile “never to return.” Curiously, his first thought on hearing this harsh sentence pronounced is not of family or friends but of the English language, the only language he has spoken in the forty years of his life. To leave England, in 1595, was to leave English. Norfolk contemplates going forth into a world where his speech will be unintelligible, and this is the first and sharpest pain that afflicts him:

Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips;
And dull, unfeeling, barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence, then, but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath? [1]

In the 400-odd years since Shakespeare wrote these lines, the terms of Norfolk’s lament have been almost wholly reversed. Today, the speaker of English has a better chance of being understood in more places across the globe than the speaker of any other language. Today, it’s the person who does not speak English who risks exclusion—not merely social exclusion but exclusion from the ability to survive in the global economy: “speechless death” indeed.

Since 1921, when the PEN Club was founded in London, the transmission of human thought across linguistic and national boundaries has been among its central concerns. “Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency among nations in spite of political or international upheavals,” reads the first line of the PEN Charter, which adds: “PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations . . .” In that spirit, International PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull of Barcelona, with the collaboration of a number of writers, translators, cultural diplomats and specialists in the field of translation, assembled the present report in order to ponder what might be done to perpetuate the age-old conversation that is literature and promote the free and ready circulation of literary works across the globe at a time when, to paraphrase the Irish writer Colm Toibín, the world’s richest language, in economic terms—English—is also one of its most impoverished when it comes to taking in the literary wealth that exists beyond it.

Rather than acting as a true lingua franca to facilitate communication among different languages, English all too often simply ignores whatever is not English, mistaking the global reach and diversity of the world’s dominant language for the world itself. This report therefore begins with the assessment of the unprecedented global scope of English and the current state of literary translation in the English-speaking world and particularly in the United States. . .

While estimates of the number of English speakers vary, one frequently cited figure for the number who speak it as a first language is 400 million. [2] In the Welsh ecolinguist David Crystal’s account, the number of those who speak it as a second language is also around 400 million.  When those two figures are added to the rather more nebulous number of people who are currently learning English and have achieved a minimal level of competence the total is well beyond a billion. Indeed, while it is common knowledge that Mandarin Chinese is the first language of the greatest number of people on earth (also well over a billion), that no longer seems to be a wide enough reach for the Chinese themselves. In a speech given in Beijing in 2005, Gordon Brown, the U.K. finance minister, predicted: “In 20 years time, the number of English speakers in China is likely to exceed the number of speakers of English as a first language in all the rest of the world.” [3]

Whether or not Mr. Brown’s prophecy comes true, it’s clear that a variety of factors—ranging from the expansion of the British Empire which began just after Shakespeare wrote Richard II and continued over the course of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, to the development in the United States of the technology that made the Internet possible—have conjoined to make English the seemingly indispensible language of globalization as we know and experience it today. In addition to being spoken in its birthplace in the U.K., English is the primary language of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and more than two dozen other countries, as far flung as Nigeria, Jamaica, and Fiji. And in a dozen countries more—such as the Philippines, India, and South Africa—English plays an official role in government alongside one or more other languages.

More than 85% of the world’s international organizations use English as an official language. But it is the recent expansion of English as a second language in the European Union that attests, perhaps more compellingly than any other statistic, to the language’s current status and future growth. In 1999, David Graddol noted that since 1990, English-language competence on the European continent had risen sharply, to the point that over 100 million people, almost a third of the European Union’s population, were speaking it as a second language. [4] Graddol’s finding that in 1994 10 percent of European continentals over the age of 55 knew some English while 55 percent of those between 15 and 24 did, speaks volumes about what can be expected for the future.


[1] Nicholas Ostler, who cites this passage in his study of the language history of the world, Empires of the Word (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) points out that when Shakespeare wrote this speech, there was only a single British colony, the one founded by Sir Walter Ralegh in Roanoke, Virginia in 1586, the fate of which was unknown to anyone in England at that point (p. 477).

[2] David Crystal, The Language Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004), p. 8.

[3] Reported in “New Dawn in a Shared Language,” by Andrew Yeh, The Financial Times.

[4] See Graddol, “The Decline of the Native Speaker,” in Graddol, David and Ulrike H. Meinhof, editors, English in a Changing World (Milton Keynes: Catchline, 1999), pp. 57-68; cited by Ostler, op. cit. p. 516