English Means Business

The international language—the lingua franca for doing business—should continue to be English. Pro or con?

Pro: Yes, Warts and All

International companies and international commerce generally imply a fundamental need for people to communicate across the globe, at least at a basic verbal and written level. Translation and multilingual communication are important, but unless there is one common language that everyone doing global business can speak, the complexity makes it unwieldy for cross-border businesses to function. Multilingual companies, as well those that use something other than the de facto global language, will always find it difficult to compete with—and will incur higher transactions costs than—those that use a single cross-border language.

We can argue about the merits of the situation, but English already is the language of international commerce. This is not likely to change any time soon. The situation may not be optimal, especially if English is not your strongest language. I admit to having been astonishingly lucky in my choice of birthplace, but using English makes sense.

It was an accident of timing that English happened to be the language of the dominant economic world power when globalization reached a critical growth point. It’s done and it’s working. Even if there exists a better solution (Esperanto didn’t get far), it could never be put in place at this stage in a practical way without a world war or a new dominant power. For its part, China shows far more interest in teaching hundreds of millions of people to speak English than in advancing Mandarin or Cantonese as a global language.

I am no fan of international business English. It may be dominant in North America, but it is hardly a language reflective of Europe, let alone Asia. It doesn’t really represent a bridging of cultures (unless you go back to the Saxons and Gauls). Still, it is relatively simple, having few cases and bearing a pronunciation scheme that pretty much follows the letters as you read them. This makes it appropriate, if not ideal, for what it has become. Although it may be as painful at times to native speakers as it is challenging to nonspeakers, the simple international version of English (usually) works. It has no apostrophes, limited punctuation, interchangeable homophone spellings, an extremely limited vocabulary that’s often misused (see www.engrish.com for an extensive collection of examples), little color, and less feeling. It’s serviceable and essential.

Even as a kind of lowest common denominator, the English of international business marks a further step forward in a global cultural evolution that has been picking up pace along with cross-border flows of goods, money, and information over the last few decades. For nearly all global enterprises, wherever they are based—and even for tourists, wherever they go—English is the language of international contact. It may be a crude way to bring the business world together, but it’s a start.

Con: Non, Nee, Nej, Nein!

Non-native English speakers and companies should not be language-submissive. Linguistic diversity is worth fighting for.

English as a common business language makes for an easy choice. Much like most doctrines that celebrate homogeneity, the one-company-one-people-one-language-fits-all cultural mentality seems easy. The economy-minded reasoning of today suggests that this will happen increasingly in multinational companies. A common language facilitates socialization processes, communication, and team building. Social identity theory suggests that language barriers set boundaries with many unwanted consequences. Moreover, the alternatives to a single common language are costly and cumbersome.

So this is a no-brainer, right? Not quite. Before making sweeping conclusions about English as a lingua franca, we need to consider some inevitable downsides.

1. The status of English as a de facto lingua of business. This "choice" is historically determined by the colonial, economic, and technological power of English-speaking countries in recent centuries. English as the dominant language in IT and the general Internet is reinforcing this just as English is spreading via film, television, and music. As a consequence, other languages are disappearing faster than ever, which makes language preservation important around the globe as a part of maintaining cultural diversity.

2. A common language gives people the illusion of communicating effectively and sharing the same context and interpretation, even when this may not be the case. The same words can mean different things in different local settings, and different pronunciations or strong accents can make communication more difficult than it seems. Depending on who’s speaking to whom, it isn’t necessarily a common language.

3. Standardization suppresses the national, regional, or ethnic identity supported by non-dominant languages. Napoleon did it. Franco did it. The EU may soon do it. Today, people who speak English as a mother tongue automatically ascend to a position of power, creating a language-based status hierarchy, with non-native English speakers feeling excluded and devalued. At some companies, ideas and content are disregarded or ridiculed when not phrased in Ivy League English.

4. Languages are cues that activate different and important culture-specific frames. This means that different thinking styles that relate to languages will not surface in a one-fits-all culture, and organizations will lose out on broader-based ideas and perspectives.

The assumed gains in efficiency from relying on any common language at multinational companies come at a price. It may make us richer in the short term, but poorer in the long run. We need to preserve and cherish language diversity and say "no" to always using a common language.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Brian Barker

The comment about Esperanto is yet another attempt to denigrate the international language.

However during a short period of 123 years and despite persecution by both Hitler and Stalin, Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include financier George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO, and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

The new study course (http://www.lernu.net) is currently receiving 120,000 hits per month.

Nelson Montz

May we get past notions of world domination? Shall we recognize others and other lands as worthy? Isn't this a wonderful time to take the chips off our shoulders, and get down to the task of cooperation. In America it would aid US in teaching our children well. There is no need for our children to be language deficient as their forefathers have been. Si? Oui?

David Curtis

It's not cricket for English to be the most prominent international language. To be fair to other nations, English-speaking ones should shoulder the burden of equality in communication. National languages are all irregular because their speakers can spend all their waking hours mastering the irregularities. It is much fairer to use Esperanto because of its grammatical regularity, phonetic spelling, and time-saving vocabulary-building. Esperanto should be taught in all primary and secondary schools, everywhere, to ensure that billions of children have a common second language. Those most successful at learning it can then go on to learning national languages, but always they will have the means of communicating with foreigners on a basis of equality. It can be learnt for nothing on lernu.net.

Bill Chapman

I'm all for wider use of Esperanto, a relatively easy language which belongs to no one nation or group of nations.

Esperanto provides a good introduction to learning other languages too.

Allan Rockett

The British Empire may no longer exist, but the Colonial attitude still endures. The school of thought appears to be "If you want to trade with me, you have to speak English."

What would happen, if all the countries from whom the British Isles imports goods, were to adopt a similar attitude in respect of their own languages? Where would we be then?

English is a difficult language; it is an irregular language; it is a very inconsistant language. If a common language has to be used, and universally adopted, it ought to be an easy language, a regular language, a consistant language. This is not a pipe dream--such a language exists and is used regularly throughout the world. I speak of Esperanto, a simpler and much better solution than English for world trade. A language which places everyone on an equal footing, with no one able to claim superiority over anyone else. In my opinion, this would be the ideal solution.

Louis Wunsch-Rolshoven

English may be a lingua franca for doing business in many parts of the world. But I am not sure that the commerce between France and Germany uses more English than French and German. Nor probably that between Italy and Spain. Not between Brazil and the neighbouring Spanish speaking countries. Probably not between China and the neighbouring countries with their Chinese minorities. And so on.

The relative business strength of the English speaking countries is slowly decreasing as shows http://unicode.org/notes/tn13/ (from 2003, but the tendency stays). So we may ask ourselves, if "the lingua franca for doing business should continue to be English"--but the world reality changes without asking us what we would like...

It is probably not astonishing that two of the BRIC-countries do their steps towards the international language Esperanto. The China government has three web sites in Esperanto, esperanto.china.org.cn, esperanto.cri.cn, and espero.com.cn, with daily news in Esperanto. Brazil's Federal Senate already accepted a new legislation to introduce Esperanto as an optional language in Brazilian schools and the Chamber of Deputies will presumably follow. The English speaking countries are certainly not interested in promoting Esperanto--but other countries are.

Michael Peppermay

I've never even heard of Esperanto. Stick with English, folks. Or, if you’re really enthusiastic learn a real language. Spanish, Chinese, French, or Arabic would make good second bests. Going with something that we’ve heard of and that people actually speak would be a good idea. But let's face the facts, the world is where it is and debating about it isn't going to change that.

Maury Peiperl

@Nelson Montz: Absolutely! One thing the US should without a doubt do is increase the importance of languages in its schools. My perception is that this is happening, albeit too slowly. Americans may have an advantage in being native speakers of the global language of business, but they (we) have a disadvantage in not being exposed enough to other languages and cultures. Interestingly, much of the US educational establishment seems to understand this, and curricula reflect a growing acceptance of a multicultural world. My guess would be that as the Millennial generation in the US comes of age, the "world domination" idea will pretty much be consigned to the scrapbook of history. Here's hoping....

Loha Singh

Language has two basic things--script and words. The English script without any accents, unlike French and Spanish, is machine friendly and provides common ground for several languages. English words with a common business dictionary; which is open--Kanban, Juggernaut, Googling, Segway etc. makes English a global and dynamic language unlike say, French, where the dictionary is closed and does not allow new word entries.

As the global economy becomes more integrated, it will need a common language platform for all kind of new ideas such as the Internet (what is the word in Arbaic for Internet?), which can be discussed with similar understanding.

Languages can also hide a lot of ugly things that are not commonly understood. For example, old Indian scriptures written in Sanskrit contain horrific ideas about women and their status in society that common people do not know and has been hidden or reinterpreted by priests or intellectuals. Similar ideas are found in old literature in Arabic and Latin, which are not understood by common people and are left to interpretation by intellectuals--for example, "Women can be stoned by men".

MM

Surely Lingua Franca is de facto the one adopted by those who need to communicate and not imposed by some external authority. We can say let's use Afrikaans as a lingua franca, but it will make no difference to what happens in reality.

There is a political element of any language, but in business in particular where there is a client-supplier relationship in most communications, language will be decided at an individual level based on power and need to communicate a message, not on whether English is a better language or French is more suitable for this transaction, or Arabic is simpler to understand.

J. Archer

It's been almost a year since you pitted Paulson against Krugman. Why not revisit this "debate," only this time allow Paulson and Krugman to make their own arguments directly, instead of putting words and opinions in their mouths (and slighting Krugman in the process, it seemed to me, and to Krugman himself, I think). Invite your readers to judge each's current and past arguments, with a reminder that there is now more of a factual record against which each's judgements can't be checked.

bill gates

1. Yes, English will be first universal language. English is easy to learn, read, understand, and use.

2. English, Spanish, Chinese (spoken) willl be used in global commerce.

Chinese in written form is epic disaster.

3. English is like math/science...50-100 can be tested in math/science/computers. All of it is universal.

4. Academic pinhead--pinheads in humanities who want to keep their fake jobs; hoax jobs will continue to teach languages.

5. English is good for the world. English will be the first universal language.

jjmiho

Our family uses English because it's connected to the world of language. There is Greek-Mesopotamia, certainly Latin-Italian and French in it--a lot of German, even some Chinese and Japanese, and most certainly Arabic and Hindu--ever try multiplying with roman numerals? It took me hours, and how about in Asian symbolic words? It's almost maddening to calculate in billions. I learned a bit of Italian to read about the renaissance (Medici family bankers). I learned Japanese because of a monk and it helped me when I had to interrogate captured North Koreans about supply and strength of the enemy. Enough French to navigate the Louvre. English is flexible and cosmopolitan in use by most people on this planet, and it may save this planet as the science and geology of this planet is easy to understand in English. In Asia, one has to memorize at least 2500 words to read a paper or read between the lines--let alone news on the web. Although Chinese is beautiful--poetic [tu fu] and graphic language as it was pictorially developed thousands of years ago, but today science is easily the easiest to understand in English. You can't navigate the stock market in Urdu.

Marcus Privato Guedes

I believe that English is the language of business in the very near future. My sons, 15 and 13 years, are studying English, I'm studying English and my wife already speaks English with some fluency. I do not advocate that a language is better or worse, but economies of its importance in business, technology, finance and so on.

dourado

It's not the language, it's the culture. Behind the Lingua Franca status, English carries the heritage of 1689 and 1776 revolutions. The English dominance is a result of the defection of Napoleon, Hitler, Hiroito, Stalin. Behind this language you have the Common Law, the Bill of Rights, the US Constitution, and federalism. This is not the trade and business language only--English is the tongue of a modern world and will last until a new and dominant culture replace it. Probably this is a matter of few centuries.

Brian Barker

Do not overestimate the position of English.

I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English,” my answer is “Listen and look around you.” If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto.

Your readers may be interested in seeing http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU. Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations
ernu.net is now receiving 120,000 hits per month. That can't be bad.

David Laffineuse

As a native French speaker and fluent English speaker, my vote is also for Esperanto. Just calling English the international language does not make it so. English is surprisingly difficult to learn and master. It is also unfortunately tied to world politics to which not everyone subscribes, and is therefore seen as guilty by association.

The current position of English as an "international language of business" should not be overestimated. English is not the first and will not be the last. I am sure that if we could ask our ancestors, they would have thought that Latin and French would never be dethroned.

Esperanto is the only international language that works. It has a rich past, a vibrant present, and in my view a very bright future. Time will tell.

Daniel Coster

English will remain the main language. Although many people are already practicing Esperanto on Babelyou. Babelyou is a language learning portal which is free of charge and enables language students from over 75 countries in more than 45 languages to find language partners all over the world and to learn or practice a foreign language together in virtual class rooms via video conference. http://www.babelyou.com

As a native Spanish speaker, my vote is for English.

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