The story of how English came
to be an international language would take thousands of pages to tell.
Scholars differ as to the major reasons for this global phenomenon:
some ascribe it to cultural imperialism, citing the colonial history
of England (and to some extent the United States) in Africa and Asia;
some point to the migrations of English speakers from England to Africa,
North America, Asia, and Australia; still others ascribe it to economic
and cultural factors. The world of entertainment, which is highly influential
with young people, is dominated in large part by popular icons from
the English-speaking parts of the world.
The number of speakers of English worldwide runs from a billion and
a half to two billion. Of that number, approximately 80 percent speak
a different language in addition to English.* The different kinds of
English that have grown up and that are spoken by all these different
groups - in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas -
vary so much that they are often referred to as "world Englishes."
These "Englishes" reflect not only the characteristics of the original
English-speaking countries but the cultural and linguistic characteristics
of the other countries in which they have developed. In addition to
these "national" varieties, there exist other varieties that are used
in international business, trade, science, technology, and politics.
Why is English so important to learn? No language is important to learn
unless you hope to gain something of value from learning it. English
has become widespread at least partly because people have found it useful
in achieving their goals, whether they are intellectual, cultural, economic,
scientific, or political.
I would recommend taking a look at some publications that deal with
the spread and status of English in the world today. Here are some references
that may help:
Janina Brutt-Griffler, World English: A Study of Its Development
(Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2002).
B.B. Kachru and C. L. Nelson
(1996), "World Englishes." In S. L. McKay and N.H. Hornberger
(Eds.), Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching, pp. 71-102.
(Cambridge University Press), pp. 71-102.
L.E. Smith and M.L. Forman
(Eds)., World Englishes 2000. (University of Hawaii Press,
H.G. Widdowson, "The
Ownership of English." TESOL Quarterly 28 (2), 1994,
This is a very small number of references for so complex a
question, but it's a start.
Some of the others in the Grammar Exchange newsgroup may be able to
give more specific reasons why English is-or isn't(!)-important to learn.
Any further ideas?