How Many People Learn English?

An Estimated 1.5 Billion People Are Studying the Language Worldwide

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There are 1.5 billion English-language learners worldwide, says British Council member John Knagg. The group is one of the largest providers of English language instruction in the world with more than 3,000 full-time English teachers globally. The number of English-language learners has led to a great demand for those who can teach the language, Knagg says, adding: "The lack of qualified English language instructors presents one of the largest challenges to educators and citizens across the globe."

EFL vs. ESL

English-language learners worldwide are largely divided into two groups: The British Council says that there are 750 million English as a foreign language speakers and 375 million English as a second language learners. (The remainder are learning the language through a variety of other programs, such as corporate-sponsored English classes.) The difference between the two groups is that EFL speakers generally are those using English occasionally for business or pleasure, while ESL students use English on a daily basis.

It is a commonly held misconception that ESL students only need to know the language to communicate with native speakers because English is required for those living and working in English-speaking countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. It is equally true, however, that English is used as the lingua franca between nations where English is not the primary language. These countries use English as a common tongue to make it more convenient to conduct business and cultural transactions.

Continued Growth

The number of English learners around the world is only expected to grow. English is currently spoken by 1.75 billion people worldwide—one out of every four people on the planet, according to the British Council's report, "The English Effect." The group estimates that by 2020, 2 billion people will be using the language.

Because of this growth, the demand for ESL and EFL teachers abroad has increased in recent years, with countries from India to Somalia calling for teachers to travel abroad and share their knowledge of English. As noted, there is an almost insatiable demand for qualified English-language instructors across the globe, particularly for native speakers, adds John Bentley, in his article, "Report from TESOL 2014: 1.5 Billion English Learners Worldwide" on the Teach English Abroad blog, which is published by the TEFL Academy. The group certifies more than 5,000 English-language teachers annually, most of whom then take jobs teaching English around the globe.

This growth in those learning English globally is perhaps also due to the rising global business market where English is the most commonly accepted language.

English in the European Union

The European Union recognizes 24 official languages within the group as well as a number of other regional minority languages and languages of migrant populations like refugees. Because of the vast diversity of languages and cultures in the EU, there has recently been a push to accept one common language for dealing with foreign entities outside those of member states, but this creates an issue of representation when it comes to minority languages like Catalan in Spain or Gaelic in the United Kingdom.

Still, workplaces within the EU operate with the 24 accepted primary languages, including English, most of which are offered as courses in primary schools and other educational institutions. Learning English, specifically then, becomes a pursuit of keeping up with the rapid globalization of the rest of the world, but fortunately for the EU, many citizens in its member states speak English quite fluently already. With the UK expected to leave the EU through Brexit—short for "British Exit"—it remains to be seen if English will continue to be a primary language used by members of the organization.