Pi Attitude Zone: Connectivity & Drive

What’s English For Global?

Some people need to watch their language.  What’s it like, working for a German or Japanese or Swedish or Chinese firm whose bosses suddenly decree that all business will henceforth be conducted in... English?

The question is not academic.  A growing number of multi-national companies whose origins are not remotely Anglo-Saxon are taking exactly that decision.  Their ranks already include Chinese computer giant Lenovo, German car firm Audi and airline Lufthansa, and Japanese automotive internationals such as Honda and Bridgestone Tires.  They all have a pretty much unbreakable new rule: Say It In English.

Employees who were already fluent in their company’s new global language are delighted, of course, and feel like they’ve just been promoted.  For others less linguistically gifted it can be somewhere between a struggle and a nightmare. 

Learning business English can be made to seem more important than doing your job right.  Linguistic mistakes and hesitations make highly intelligent and effective employees suddenly feel embarrassed and stupid.  Many just go silent in meetings, afraid of exposing their lack of fluency, perhaps even fearful for their jobs.  Frustrations and resentments can build up and feed into clandestine muttering campaigns among those who only feel comfortable in their mother-tongue.  A monoglot regime can produce fierce internal discord and dysfunction, as Japan’s online retailing giant Rakuten found to its cost;  its employees were initially told to achieve fluency in two years, on their own time, or face demotion or the sack.  That threat was hastily withdrawn as soon as the horror-stricken reaction began to be felt.

The reasons for adopting English as a corporate lingua franca are evident.  One interesting and less obvious reason is that it apparently promotes open-mindedness and free thinking, because English is not prey to the unhelpful social stratifications and status signals built-in to many oriental languages.  In any case, if not English, what?  The only other multinational languages sufficiently widely-spoken would be Spanish (too geographically constrained) and Mandarin (fiendishly difficult, computer-unfriendly, and not even universally spoken in China itself).  Arabic?  Hindi?  What would be the point?  Like it or not,  Say-It-In-English is in.

Nevertheless, the ascendancy of business English still needs to be handled with sensitivity.  Even near-fluent speakers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) can still experience difficulties with expressing complex and subtle concepts.  Important local cultural realities can be unconsciously trampled or ignored in an English-only environment, to the detriment of consensual management.  And people lucky enough to speak English as their maternal language can inadvertently make themselves unpopular and resented by being lazy, sloppy and condescending – particularly when they casually baffle their colleagues with Anglo-slang and impenetrable British or American catch-phrases.  Yeah, we mean you, sport-metaphor guy.

Pi says: English is a two-edged weapon: great for giving orders in, but often not so good for promoting international friendship.  Some friendly advice to monoglot Anglophones:  feel privileged, and grateful.  Learn international English (it’s different), speak slowly and clearly, and listen at least as much as you talk.  Just because you “speak-a da lingo”, it doesn’t make you any smarter or better than the other guy.  Capeesh?

Zone: Connectivity & Drive Country: Multiple Geographies Product – Communications