How many English speakers are there around the world? It's a question I started researching when a newspaper journalist interviewed me last week about the launch of a French news channel, France 24. The question was relevant because it turns out that much of the French channel will be broadcast in English - and for a nation which protects its language so fiercely, this must have been a very hard decision.
But it's also a pragmatic one. The number of people who can speak English is growing, and it's becoming the international language of business and, of course, the internet in many parts of the world. Exactly how many people speak English is a matter of some disagreement.
If you look at some of the online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia or Encarta, there's a rough agreement that 350 million people - give or take 20 or 30 million - speak English as their first language. When you try to account for people who speak English as a secondary language, the estimates diverge from another 150 million to more than 500 million.
Either way it seems to lift English up from the fourth or fifth most spoken language to second, behind Chinese. French, according to Encarta, comes in at 11th, with 78 million speakers. So on that basis, you can see why producing some of its output in English is a necessary step if France 24 is going to make any impact in the international market.
It's an increasingly crowded market. CNN has been there for 25 years and BBC World Service Television - later to become BBC World - launched 15 years ago. There are four more English channels either on air or planned to launch...Russia Today (you can watch it here) is on air and of course the much-hyped Al Jazeera International is due to launch at some point, although nobody is saying exactly when. Even the Iranians are getting in on the act, announcing this month the intention to launch a 24 hour news channel in English, to be called "Press".
So why the rush to launch so many news channels? I think it divides into two reasons. First, because the demand (and need) for international news is growing (BBC World's audiences are increasing in just about every market) and so many of us these days have a direct interest in global affairs that these channels are becoming increasingly relevant... decisions taken outside national borders may affect our jobs, or the state of our environment, or indeed our security.
The second reason is politics. To quote President Chirac, France "must be at the forefront of the global battle of images, that's why I am resolved that our country should have an international news channel". An Iranian official quoted last week said Press was necessary to provide “a different perspective on the region’s issues”.
Both BBC World and CNN exist because of the first reason. We're there because we think it's important to offer a high-quality service of international news to global audiences, in the same way as the World Service does on the radio (neither, incidentally, funded out of the British licence fee).
We think the public service values of the BBC's domestic journalism also have a place in the global arena and in doing so we bring benefit back to Britain. Plus we also help sustain an international network of correspondents and bureaux which benefits UK viewers and listeners.
And of course we welcome all competition... because without it, we risk becoming complacent or stale. So I will be watching eagerly when France 24 goes on air later this year, and perhaps I won't even need to brush up on my French to do so.