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.