the countries ruled by Britain starting in the late 15th century until a peak around 1920 when the British Empire included around a quarter of the world's population. British colonies (= places taken over by a foreign country and settled by people from that place) included parts of North America, islands in the West Indies, India, Australia, New Zealand and several countries in Africa. Many of them became colonies at a time when several European countries, including Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands, were competing for trade around the world and for new sources of raw materials. Most of these colonies became independent during the 20th century, when it was generally recognized that it was not morally acceptable to take over other countries and exploit them, and many colonies had growing nationalist movements for independence. Through the Commonwealth many of the countries still have political and economic links with Britain. Perhaps the most important and lasting cultural influence of the British Empire has been the spread of the English language which is still either an official language or taught as a second language in many countries.