International English

International English is the concept of the English language as a global means of communication in numerous dialects, and the movement towards an international standard for the language. It is sometimes referred to as Global English, World English or Standard English. Sometimes these terms refer simply to the array of varieties of English spoken throughout the world; sometimes they refer to a desired standardisation. However, consensus on the terminology and path to standardisation has not been reached.

Varieties of English
AAVE (Ebonics)
American English
Australian English
British English
Canadian English
Caribbean English
Commonwealth English
English English
Hawaiian English
Highland English
Hong Kong English
Indian English
International English
Jamaican English
Liberian English
Malawian English
Malaysian English
Mid Ulster English
Newfoundland English
New Zealand English
Philippine English
Scottish English
Singaporean English
South African English
Standard English
Welsh English

Historical context

The modern concept of International English does not exist in isolation, but is the product of centuries of development of the English language.

The language of England came to dominance throughout Britain during the Middle Ages and in Ireland during the 18th century and, especially, the 19th century. In the modern era, printing led to the gradual standardisation of English, and particularly the use of the prestige dialect of the English ruling classes.

The establishment of the first permanent English-speaking colony in North America in 1607 was a major step towards the globalisation of the language. British English was only partially standardised when the American colonies were established. Isolated from Britain by the Atlantic Ocean, the settlements evolved a distinct standard form of American English. In particular, Noah Webster's reform of American-English spelling in the early 19th century gave rise to the main division in English spelling.

In the 18th century, British colonialism focused on the southern hemisphere. The standardisation of British English was more settled than it had been in the previous century, and this confident English was brought to Africa, Asia and Oceania. It developed both as the language of English-speaking settlers from Britain and Ireland, and as the administrative language imposed on speakers of other languages in the various parts of the British Empire. The first form can be seen in New Zealand English, and the latter in Indian English. The term Commonwealth English refers to these groups of English dialects.

The English-speaking nations of Canada and the Caribbean are caught between historical connections with British and Commonwealth English, and geographical connections with U.S. English. In some things, and more formally, they tend to follow British standards, in others they follow the U.S. standard.

The ebb and flow between the standardisation of the language and its diversification have been ever present throughout its history. The flagship of the former is intelligibility and practicality, while the latter has cultural autonomy and flexibility.

Modern global language

There is a distinction between English as spoken as a native language around the world (in the USA, Britain, Australia and so forth) and as a non-native language spoken as a regional or global lingua franca.

A second distinction is made between those countries where non-native English has official or historical importance (special significance, for example, in Pakistan and Uganda), and those where it does not (for example, in Japan and Peru).

In the terminology of English language teaching, we have:

  • English as a native language (ENL), also called first language (L1).
  • English as an additional language (EAL) or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL):
    • English as a second language (ESL) in an environment where English has a special significance, also called second language (L2).
    • English as a foreign language (EFL) in places where it has no special significance, also called third language (L3).

English as a second language might refer either to acquisition of the language in southern India, where it is a prominent, regional lingua franca, or the acquisition of the language by a speaker of another language in a predominantly English-speaking country (a Brazilian living in Barbados, for instance). It may not be an individual's actual second language, but perhaps third or fourth.

In the context of language teaching, English as an additional language (EAL) usually is based on the standards of either British/Commonwealth English or American English. English as an international language (EIL) is EAL with emphasis on learning different major dialect forms; in particular, it aims to equip students with the linguistic tools to communicate internationally.

The term International English is used in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), an English-language definition and evaluation system owned, developed and delivered through the partnership of the British Council, IDP Education Australia: IELTS Australia and the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations. Though concentrating on a kind of English understood almost everywhere, the basic standard is taken to be Commonwealth English.

Varying concepts

Universality and flexibility

International English sometimes refers to English as it is actually being used and developed in the world; as a language owned not just by native speakers, but by all those who come to use it.

Basically, it covers the English language at large, often (but not always or necessarily) implicitly seen as standard. It is certainly also commonly used in connection with the acquisition, use, and study of English as the world's lingua franca ('TEIL: Teaching English as an International Language'), and especially when the language is considered as a whole in contrast with American English, British English, South African English, and the like. — McArthur (2002, p. 444–45)

It especially means English words and phrases generally understood throughout the English-speaking world as opposed to localisms. The importance of non-native English language skills can be recognised behind the long-standing joke that the international language of science and technology is broken English.


International English reaches towards cultural neutrality. This has a practical use:

"What could be better than a type of English that saves you from having to re-edit publications for individual regional markets! Teachers and learners of English as a second language also find it an attractive idea – both often concerned that their English should be neutral, without British or American or Canadian or Australian colouring. Any regional variety of English has a set of political, social and cultural connotations attached to it, even the so-called 'standard' forms." — Peters (2004, International English)

According to this viewpoint, International English is a concept of English that minimises the aspects defined by either the colonial imperialism of Victorian Britain or the cultural imperialism of the 20th century United States. While British colonialism laid the foundation for English over much of the world, International English is a product of an emerging world culture, very much attributable to the influence of the United States as well, but conceptually based on a far greater degree of cross-talk and linguistic transculturation, which tends to mitigate both U.S. influence and British colonial influence.

The development of International English often centres around academic and scientific communities, where formal English usage is prevalent, and creative and flowery use of the language is at a minimum. This formal international English allows entry into Western culture as a whole and Western cultural values in general.


The continued growth of the English language itself is seen by many as a kind of cultural imperialism, whether it is English in one form or English in two slightly different forms.

Robert Phillipson argues against the possibility of such neutrality in his Linguistic Imperialism (1992). Learners who wish to use purportedly correct English are in fact faced with the dual standard of American English and British English, and other less known standard Englishes.

Many Englishes

There are many difficult choices that have to be made if there is to be further standardisation of English in the future. These include the choice over whether to adopt a current standard, or move towards a more neutral, but artificial one. A true International English might supplant both current American and British English as a variety of English for international communication, leaving these as local dialects, or would rise from a merger of General American and standard British English with admixture of other varieties of English and would generally replace all these varieties of English.

We may, in due course, all need to be in control of two standard Englishes—the one which gives us our national and local identity, and the other which puts us in touch with the rest of the human race. In effect, we may all need to become bilingual in our own language. — David Crystal (1988: p. 265)

This is the situation long faced by many users of English who possess a 'non-standard' dialect of English as their birth tongue but have also learned to write (and perhaps also speak) a more standard dialect. Many academics often publish material in journals requiring different varieties of English and change style and spellings as necessary without great difficulty.

Dual standard

Two approaches to International English are the individualistic and inclusive approach and the new dialect approach.

The individualistic approach gives control to individual authors to write and spell as they wish (within purported standard conventions) and to accept the validity of differences. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, published in 1999, is a descriptive study of both American and British English in which each chapter follows individual spelling conventions according to the preference of the main editor of that chapter.

The new dialect approach appears in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters, 2004) which attempts to avoid any language bias and accordingly uses an idiosyncratic international spelling system of mixed American and British forms (but tending more to American spelling).

Non-U.S. English

Sometimes International English is used to refer to a general standard that is based on Commonwealth and British English, rather than U.S. English. Whereas the majority of English native speakers use American English, most English-speaking nations use British/Commonwealth English as a standard, which explains the use of the word "international". However, U.S. English is having a greater influence in the rapidly expanding area of English as a foreign language, due to the economic and cultural influence of the United States.
The international flavour of British/Commonwealth English is dependent on three factors:

  1. British and Commonwealth English are standard in far more countries around the world than U.S. English.
  2. Many academic publications outside of the United States use the conventions of the Oxford University Press.
  3. This standard of English has official status in the United Nations and the European Union, and it is used as the basis of English-language testing by the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

International English is also sometimes used in this manner in the computer industry. The Linux community, and other Open Software groups use the term Commonwealth English instead, usually in giving users a choice of spellings or wordings for messages. But the English language choices given are in fact normally only between American English and British English with -ise spellings, the latter being called International English or Commonwealth English.

However, Microsoft's Encarta has different versions for American English, Australian English, British English, and Canadian English which does not exhaust what could be provided.

International organisations

There are three major English varieties used as standards by international organisations:

British English with -ize spellings

Spellings: centre, programme, labour, defence, cooperation, organize, recognize, but: analyse
IANA language tag en-GB-oed, this standard is based on the Oxford English Dictionary

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

  • United Nations system (UN, UNESCO, UNICEF...),
  • World Trade Organization (WTO),
  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO),
  • International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC),
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU),
  • World Health Organization (WHO),
  • International Labour Organization (ILO),
  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
  • Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC),
  • South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC),
  • International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol,
  • International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
  • WWF - The Conservation Organization
  • and Amnesty International.

British English with -ise spellings

Spellings: centre, programme, labour, defence, co-operation, organise, recognise, analyse
Language tag en-GB, the official standard of the UK government.

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

American English

Spellings: center, program, labor, defense, cooperation, organize, recognize, analyze
Language tag en-US, used by the U.S. government.

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

  • International Monetary Fund (IMF),
  • World Bank,
  • Organization of American States (OAS),
  • NAFTA Secretariat,
  • and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

References, further reading, and external links

Distinguished from or including both U.S. and British English

Closely identified or synonymous with standard British English

  • Bible Society: Machine Assisted Translations: Anglicisations ( ("The standard English of India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Commonwealth and some other countries where English is used follows the conventions of British English. It is often therefore called International English to distinguish it from American English.")
  • Carson, George S., Puk, Richard F., Carey, Rikk (1998). "Development of the VRML 97 International Standard" ( ("International Standards are written in International English, not American English. The most obvious difference is many minor variations in the way words are spelled, for example "colour" rather than "color", "centre" rather than "center" and "behaviour" rather than "behavior." Although ISO granted a special exception to allow VRML to be published initially in American English if necessary to expedite its publication, both sides decided to convert most of the document to International English. The only exceptions were affecting the syntax of a VRML file, such as node names like "Color" and "ColorInterpolator", where a change to "Colour" and ColourInterpolator" would have made existing VRML files incompatible with the new standard.")
  • Goult, Roderick S. W. (2004). Introduction to ISO 9000:2000 Handbook. Edition of August, 2004. Methuen, MA: The Victoria Group. ( (PDF. From page 6: "An ISO standard which has been 'adopted' by a national standards body of a country will undergo some minor changes for reasons of translation, use of language or local interpretation. Hence, in the ANSI/ISO/ASQ standards, the spelling varies from international English, and the words 'International Standard' have been changed to 'American National Standard.'")
  • Xerox: Phaser 740/740L: Product Brochures  ( (Brochures available for download in either "U.S. English" or "International English".)

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