One Global Language for Business?

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review (Tsedal Neely | Global Business Speaks English | HBR May 2012) “English is now the global language of business.” The article discusses the significance of English as a language to overcome global communication obstacles. Companies with presence in several countries are unifying their corporate communication across borders. English is now the corporate language for Airbus, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, Daimler-Chrysler, SAP, and Rakuten (a Japanese online service that’s a bit Amazon.com and a bit eBay). There is a strong argument for having one language  play across the entire company. Most important, perhaps, is the consistency of communication. When every employee speaks the same language, the chances of miscommunication are significantly reduced. It’s easier to clarify meaning, and pick up on the subtleties and nuances of the language. So why English then? Take the example of Singapore which has four national languages — English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. Any one of these could take precedence as the de facto language for business. So why did English become the popular choice of communication in Singapore? This question is equally applicable to other parts of the world that were ruled by the British — including India, most of Africa, Australia, and North America.

According to the article in the HBR, the reason for English’s dominant position is the sheer prevalence of the language coupled with the time it had to take root. The British Empire’s influence has been around since the 1600s, and grew to cover a quarter of the world. (It’s been said that the sun never set on the British Empire.) With colonization so expansive, natives of all these areas took on English and in many cases amalgamated the language with their own to create hybrid forms of communication. In India, English became such a strong part of the native speak that English itself got influenced by myriad Indian languages. Words like bungalow, veranda, pyjamas, and chai originate from Indian languages that found their way into the fabric of English. No doubt other languages in other parts of the world also had an impact on how English developed; which brings us to the present day.

English is the “fastest-spreading language in human history, spoken at a useful level by 1.75 billion people worldwide, or one in every four people.” (Source: Tsedal Neely | Global Business Speaks English |HBR May 2012). English had time to take hold of several areas across the planet and have itself adopted as a common language. It’s highly doubtful that another colonial era will ever take hold of the world across such a scale and for so much time. Added to this was the work of missionaries from English-speaking countries who rooted English as the default form of communication for education. Again this is unlikely to happen. The result: English is firmly rooted as the de facto global language of our planet. And probably beyond. On the moon lies a plaque placed by Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins that states the following: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. Guess which language these words are set in. There’s no doubting the prevalence of English for our civilizations as they are this day. So why English for business?

With the majority of the world speaking English, companies that opt out of the language are confining themselves to dealing with a very small percentage of people. It’s a circle that’s constantly being fed by repeated buy-in because everybody else has already signed on. Think of Facebook’s phenomenal growth. 900 million people didn’t sign up just because Facebook exists. The idea that something is popular enough for everybody around us to sign on makes us want to sign on too. Added to this is English’s firm establishment as discussed earlier. And while multilingualism is a priceless asset of our world, “unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and gets in the way of accomplishing business goals,” according to Tsedal Neely, author of the article in the HBR. There’s plenty of research to backup this claim if you believe in the simplification of processes. Steve Jobs made it his mantra to pursue simplicity because it solves root problems. Having a unified language of communication solves the same problems of excluding double entendres and multiple interpretations arising from different language codes. As far as business is concerned, companies that do not engage in English are at a disadvantage simply because the rest of the world uses English to drive global business communication.

Of course there are arguments against having English as a common corporate language. The erosion of diversity is a real threat when choice is eliminated. Added to this is the disappearance of sub-cultures that need other languages to survive. Non-native English speakers run the risk of being ostracized and employee participation may well turn into employee passiveness. There are many more arguments of similar nature, and in the end it’s up to the decision-makers of organizations (C and D suite people) to evaluate the pros and cons of having a unified corporate language. Perhaps we can take a page out of Singapore’s book on multiculturalism. This country has done an amazing job and the result is diversity co-existing with unity that harmonizes communication instead of forcing it. English is here to stay, at least for now. And while the global economy continues to break barriers across the planet, English’s impact on global business communication will only get bigger. Whether you jump on the bandwagon, or watch it trundle by, there’s no doubting its size and momentum as it circles the world picking up passenger after passenger.


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