What should they know of English who only English know?

A decade or so ago, when I was involved in the implementation of multi-country ERP systems, I used to go to regular ‘Pan-European’ meetings. At one of them, as my mind was wandering half way through the morning, it struck me that, of the dozen people in the room, I was the only one speaking in my native language. Furthermore, if I hadn’t turned up, they would still all be speaking in my native language.

As this week’s Economist notes, the rise of English as the corporate lingua franca is likely to continue:

[T]here is no real alternative as a global business language. The most plausible contender, Mandarin Chinese, is one of the world’s most difficult to master, and least computer-friendly. It is not even universal in China: more than 400m people there do not speak it.

There are some obvious reasons why multinational companies want a lingua franca. Adopting English makes it easier to recruit global stars (including board members), reach global markets, assemble global production teams and integrate foreign acquisitions. Such steps are especially important to companies in Japan, where the population is shrinking.

There are less obvious reasons too. Rakuten’s boss, Hiroshi Mikitani, argues that English promotes free thinking because it is free from the status distinctions which characterise Japanese and other Asian languages. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group notes that German firms get through their business much faster in English than in laborious German. English can provide a neutral language in a merger: when Germany’s Hoechst and France’s Rhône-Poulenc combined in 1999 to create Aventis, they decided it would be run in English, in part to avoid choosing between their respective languages.

Good news for executives from Britain and other Anglophone countries, then. That gives us a head start in the corporate world. At the very least, it makes it easier to beat up non-native speakers in meetings, when they just can’t get their words out fast enough.

Englishnisation is not easy, even if handled well: the most proficient speakers can still struggle to express nuance and emotion in a foreign tongue. For this reason, native English speakers often assume that the spread of their language in global corporate life confers an automatic advantage on them. In fact it can easily encourage them to rest on their laurels. Too many of them (especially Englishmen, your columnist keeps being told) risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments.

Being king of the meeting room is half the battle in many organisations. But we had better enjoy this advantage while it lasts because it probably won’t for much longer.

The rest of the world is getting very good at English and doing so very quickly. Nowadays, the slow ponderous English of the older generation second-language speakers is heard less often. Younger people sound a lot more confident and fluent. In some parts of the world, among urban professionals, English is replacing native languages in the home. Go to a restaurant in the early evening in Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai and you will hear middle-class parents talking to their children in English.

In a 2006 paper, the British Council, which draws much of its revenue from teaching English, noted an “astonishing linguistic attrition” in Singapore as Chinese and local dialects gave way to English in the home.

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And it’s happening elsewhere in Asia:

In several Asian countries we can see a similar language shift within families. Singapore provides one of the best-documented examples. Gradually, English has shifted from being a second language to become the main language of the home.

In India, a similar phenomenon has occurred in middle class families and the number of such families is rising. English is often the language in which young people form relationships in young adulthood. English may provide an important escape from traditional values and expected relationships. Mothers and fathers may have different linguistic backgrounds, in which case family communication typically takes place in English.

It’s not just the former British colonies. The Vietnamese government wants all its young people to leave school with a good command of English by the end of this decade. Some subjects, such as maths, will be taught only in English. This is clearly very ambitious. A similar initiative in Malaysia has stalled because of a lack of suitably qualified teachers.

The overall trend, though, is towards increasing use of English. The British Council notes that the advantage that English-speaking educational institutions were supposed to have gained from foreigners wanting to learn our language never fully materialised. One reason for this was that the foreigners started teaching their own courses in English.

[M]ore countries, both in Europe and Asia, are attracting international students by offering courses taught through the medium of English. Singapore and Malaysia are establishing themselves as ‘education hubs’ whilst a survey of Chinese students by consultants i-graduate discovered that they were increasingly attracted to courses offered by EU countries such as Germany.

And the schools are doing it too:

English learners are getting younger. Across the world, from Chile to Mongolia, from China to Portugal, English is being introduced in primary schools, with greater compulsion, and at steadily lowering ages.

This isn’t just about improving education. In some countries, a cultural shift is taking place.

In fact, the sea-change in attitudes to the learning of English which has occurred in very recent years is not simply a new fashion in language learning but has deeper causes.

A remarkable number of governments talk not only about the need to learn a foreign language but of an ambition to make their country bilingual.

Colombia’s ‘Social Programme for Foreign Languages without Borders’ is a government initiative to make the country bilingual in 10 years. In Mongolia in 2004, the then Prime Minister declared that the country should become bilingual in English. In Chile, the government has embarked on an ambitious programme to make the population of 15 million ‘bilingual within a generation’. South Korea intends to make English an official language in new enterprise zones. In Taiwan, a public opinion survey published in January 2006 found that ‘80% of the respondents said they hope that the government will designate English the second official language’.

Does that open up vast new opportunities for British people to teach English abroad?

Probably not.

Many countries which have declared bilingualism as their goal do not look to the UK, or to the USA as a model, but to Singapore, Finland or the Netherlands. Furthermore, they are increasingly likely to look to English teachers from bilingual countries to help them in their task, rather than to monolingual native-speakers of English.

Which leads on to the second problem native speakers face; the English that is dominating the world is not our English.

People have wondered for some years whether English had so much got its feet under the global office desk that even the rise of China – and Mandarin – could ever shift it from its position of dominance. The answer is that there is already a challenger, one which has quietly appeared on the scene whilst many native speakers of English were looking the other way, celebrating the rising hegemony of their language. The new language which is rapidly ousting the language of Shakespeare as the world’s lingua franca is English itself – English in its new global form.

English is being taught in a way that will enable people from lots of different countries to communicate across linguistic boundaries. In short, non-English speakers are not learning our language so they can talk to us. They are learning it so they can talk to each other. In some contexts, therefore, the presence of native speakers with their colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies can be a problem.

In organisations where English has become the corporate language, meetings sometimes go more smoothly when no native speakers are present. Globally, the same kind of thing may be happening, on a larger scale.

This is not just because non-native speakers are intimidated by the presence of a native speaker. Increasingly, the problem may be that few native speakers belong to the community of practice which is developing amongst lingua franca users. Their presence hinders communication.

So the other eleven people in my ‘Pan-European’ meeting might have made a lot more progress if I wasn’t there.

The British Council expects a short-term rise in demand for its English teaching, as countries like Malaysia and Vietnam need people to teach their teachers. But this, they predict, will be followed by a rapid fall. As the use of English increases, more adults will want to learn but there will come a point when foreign universities are turning out graduates who have spoken English at home and throughout their school and university careers. There will be little more that adult education can teach them.

Within a few years, there could be around 2 billion people simultaneously learning English in the world’s schools and colleges and as independent adults. Nearly a third of the world population will all be trying to learn English at the same time. This contrasts with the British Council global estimate for the year 2000, in which between 750 million and 1 billion people were learning English.

But looking further ahead, the wave may subside almost as quickly as it came. If the project to make English a second language for the world’s primary school- children is successful, a new generation of English-knowing children will grow up who do not need further English lessons of the traditional kind. Indeed, many will be expected to learn curriculum subjects such as maths and science through the medium of English. And, as this generation of children moves through the education system, they will supplant their predecessors in secondary school who were only beginning their study of the language. 

The learning of English appears to be losing its separate identity as a discipline and merging with general education.


A decade or so from now, schools and universities around the world will be producing graduates who, for all practical business purposes, can speak English as well as native speakers. Sure, this fluency may be greater among the urban middle classes but the sheer size of Asia means that is still a lot of people. According to some estimates, Asia already has more fluent English speakers than all the native English-speaking countries combined.  Furthermore, they may speak a form of de-colloquialised English which is slightly unfamiliar to native speakers. A Moldovan and a Mongolian may find it easier to speak English to each other than to an English person.

The English language no longer belongs to its native speakers. It is becoming the property of the world. Whatever privilege there is to be gained from being a native speaker is disappearing fast. This has implications for our universities and our language-teaching industry but also for Britain’s labour market. Near-fluent English speakers will compete in our market yet, unless we get much better at learning other languages, most of us won’t be able to compete in theirs. At one time, being a native English speaker gave you a head start when competing for jobs in multi-nationals or when climbing the corporate ladder once hired. Not for much longer though. These advantages are being eroded. Before long, you won’t even be able to get one over on a foreign colleague by saying something clever in a meeting. Chances are, he will say something even cleverer back. 

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9 Responses to What should they know of English who only English know?

  1. Tom says:

    You are quite right that ESL speakers are initially more comfortable with each other. But it takes mere minutes for a native speaker to “learn” ESL. In twenty years as an expat I often had to have a little talk with new arrivals from England to ask them to drop the sporting metaphors, amusing similes and exotic synonyms that were making ESL locals cry. It was actually harder for them to transition back when visiting England without causing fights in the pub for “being condescending”. Now that ESL is London’s language too even that downside has gone.

    • Dipper says:

      spot on. I work in multi-national teams, and it took time to realise they weren’t speaking my language, and I had to learn ESL too. Its not just a subset, but gramatically different too. Lots of the colour and nuance that adds interest to native English speakers simply confuses and obscures, and has to go.

  2. dougshaw says:

    Nice work. You reminded me of a time while working for BT when I had regular meetings with colleagues from Germany. There was a power struggle going on regarding which part of the business should be the primary point of contact for the client. Typical BT at the time – always more interested than having an internal ding dong than doing the right thing by the customer. Anyway – I digress.

    The main language round the table was English – and whenever things got sticky – as they frequently did – my German colleagues would revert to speaking German. Just little snippets – here and there. This went on for a few months, until one day – we took a break and one of the German guys asked me, ‘You want to join us for a cigarette?’ I replied, ‘Nein danke, ich rauche nur mit ein bier.’ I had studied German to O level at school and I have German relatives. Admittedly my spoken German wasn’t up to much but it dawned on my colleagues I just might have understood every word they had previously said. Thanks for rekindling the memory.

    • Tom says:

      Why on Earth did you tell them? I never let on that I understood German, French or Polish because I learned so much when clients and colleagues conferred. Their stereotype about what linguistic idiots we English are was very useful.

      I once won a Netherlands client because I was on the other side of a deal where they kept conferring in Dutch as if it were an unbreakable code. I had one of those early Psion PDAs with a multi-language phrase book on it and I cut and pasted together “Thank you so much. It was great to meet you. See you next time” in Dutch. Then I said it to them as they left the meeting in my best parody of a Dutch friend’s accent.

      When I laughed at their shocked faces as they thought I might have understood what they had been saying about my clients, they got the joke and decided I was more fun than their current lawyer. Many fees ensued. Nice guys. Happy days.

      • dougshaw says:

        Good question Tom. I guess I let the cat out of the bag because I thought the whole power struggle thing was a farce. I moved on to other mischievous larks soon enough 🙂 Great story too!

  3. Dave Timoney says:

    A corollary of the evolution of Globish is the reversal of the twentieth century trend towards standard English (i.e. a specifically national form) in the UK. This is often trivialised as either a progressive weakening of received pronunciation (e.g. the BBC employing more regional accents), or a regressive loss of “correct form” (e.g. pedants banging on about “whom” and verbification).

    The more profound issue is that Globish is moving further away from demotic English. In the short term this makes native class mobility harder (foreign au pairs used to be employed in London to help the kids learn another language, but now it reflects the fact that the au pairs speak a more comprehensible English than working class Londoners or provincials). In the long term it means that the language is slipping its moorings as a national dialect which can only reinforce the gradual separation of London from the rest of the country.

  4. santo thomas says:

    Great article and interesting comments, I even read the link from the economist and comments as well.

    I noticed a while back that when someone told me they spoke english they were really refering to the global funcional variant. I take a great pleasure in people wanting to learn english, but I do think it’s important to distinguish english in it’s literary rich and vocabularial (made up a new word there) best form from that of its global, funcional hybrid.

    I wonder if we will also see variants within variants, that is to say, countries and classes creating far more nuanced and expansive variants than others, rather than a global consensus on merely using the funcional english.

    What would a Britain brimming with an enlightened language-learning culture look like?

    It’s incredible, 40 quid for a flight to spain, study a module or two at a university or college equivalent, work in a bar, or even teach english on the sly, and you would easily milk 3 or 4 months learning the language and culture spending just a bit of your savings. Instead our 20 somethings save up (are given) 5-10,000 pounds to go to full moon parties in thailand (pure decadence and rotteness) or go on a mind-numbingly (how they manage it I don’t know) banal ‘lads’ holiday through south america hoovering up the ‘nose-bang’ and rutting entre sí.

  5. po8crg says:

    The global language is a type of pidgin. It’s a rather fancy pidgin, which has a rather larger vocabulary and a somewhat more complex grammatical structure than the typical pidgin, but it’s still very much simplified from the native-speaker’s language.

    The interesting question will be the next generation: will they creolise and form distinctive variants on English, with Indian English and Chinese English idioms – different from each other and both distinct from the British and American idiom? Or will idiomatic English penetrate, especially through TV, film and other cultural forms, so that natively bilingual English-Spanish speakers from Colombia end up picking up American and British idioms.

    Of course, there is a real possibility that idioms from non-Anglophone countries will penetrate into global English, and then get into the idiom even in English-speaking countries. The purity of English being, famously, that of a cribhouse whore, it seems likely that English idiom in, say, 2100, will contain a lot of phrases and words that originated in non-English languages.

  6. Pingback: On watching films with subtitles and other matters | http://error451.me

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