When it comes to learning English, my students often tend to think in terms of all, or none. Either they can speak English, or they can't. Either they sound like a native speaker, or they don't. Either they fully understand that article, lecture, movie or announcement, or they don't.

As we all know, this kind of black and white thinking can be very discouraging, especially for our lower-level students. There seems to be so much ground to cover getting from can't to can and from don't to do, that the road appears endless and the destination unreachable.

Added to this problem is the often vague notion many of my students have, particularly those who have not traveled much, as to the scope of English in the world. Of course, they know that English is (at least for now) "the" global language, but they're not really sure how that may impinge on their lives. To explain, I encourage my students to consider these facts about English in today's world:

  • English is spoken as a first language by around 400 million people.
  • More than 1 billion people in the world speak English as a second or a foreign language.
  • English has official or special status in more than 75 countries in the world, affecting a combined population of over 2 billion people.
  • The number of people learning English in China is larger than the total population of the United States.
  • Five of the largest broadcasting companies in the world (ABC, BBC, CBC, CBS and NBC) broadcast in English.
  • English is the official language of the global tourism industry.
  • English is the language of international business.
  • Nearly 50% of European Union citizens are able to converse in English.
  • About 60% of all articles in the world's scientific journals are in English.
  • About 75% of all mail in the world is written in English.
  • About 80% of all information in the world's computers is in English.
  • More than 1 billion people in the world are learning English.

It is easy to see from these facts that English no longer belongs only to native speakers in countries like Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. English belongs to the world, in all its varieties, regional differences and dialects. We live (for better or for worse!) in a global community of English users. And it's becoming more and more difficult to avoid some contact with English in our lives—either at home—or abroad.

It's also becoming evident that having no communicative ability in English can be a real handicap—for work, for study, for travel and also for having a well-informed, international outlook. I therefore encourage my students to view English as a tool, and themselves as an integral part of the international community of English users. I encourage them to make effective use of this English "tool"—I want them to get away from the black and white mentality of can or can't, do or don't. I focus on developing their uses of English so that they can do more with it to achieve their academic or personal goals, to enjoy a wider range of social or work-related contacts, and to feel more confident, internationally aware and self-sufficient when they travel abroad. Of course, I also want my students to understand that being proficient in English does not necessarily make someone an international person. It can, however, help to open up more of the world to them—wherever they are.