London – As US business dominance continues its decline and that of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and other emerging markets ascends — and the need to be multilingual is heightened — how important is English in a global economy?
“El idoma del futuro es chino,” “The language of the future is Chinese,” I quoted a Peruvian in The Inclusion Paradox as he was leaving his Chinese language class. And we could add that the languages of the future are also Hindi, Portuguese, and Russian. Or how about Spanish in the US as Latinos zoom up toward becoming ¼ of the country within the next 20 years?
As they step up into expanding their mandates from a US-based approach to also shaping global diversity strategies, Chief Diversity Officers in the US rightfully decry the pervasive monolinguism of many Americans. They worry of how this poses a competitive disadvantage for American businesses in a polyglot world. Many of them also feel that this monolinguism creates organizational inclusion issues as Americans seem to be in a stance of expecting others to learn English while they themselves are most often not taking the initiative to learn the languages of their colleagues around the world.
These trends seem to portend a declining pervasiveness in the use of English in global organizations. But wait a minute… There is a paradox here: doesn’t the rise of the emerging markets and their lack of a common language, make the need for a common trade language that much more important?
So in Indian multinationals, such as Tata Consulting for example, which has already built up its employee base to 4000+ in Latin American, do the Indian managerial expats sent there use Spanish or Portuguese to communicate or are the Latin American employees learning Hindi? While there are efforts going both ways, it turns out that the organizational default is to use English which is a second language for Indian college-educated professionals and a common second language for many Latin Americans.
And as global project teams come together with members from Poland, France, UK, India, Philippines, China, and Japan, to mention just a few!, what is the more inclusive strategy? For all to learn each others’ languages, or for all to rely on English as a common language platform on which to transact business and to explore the cultural differences between them?
The Paradox of English as an Inclusion Strategy
These issues surfaced for me as I prepared to deliver a keynote on global diversity strategies in London to sixty European, Middle Eastern, and Indian corporate clients of an organization called GlobalEnglish, which is focused on providing English language tools to non-native English speakers. In fact, as I delivered the keynote, here I was, a Spanish-as-a-first–language person in front of people who were native speakers of at least two dozen different languages and presenting in English, a language that was a second language to over half of us in the room. And, of course, it worked. If I had chosen to speak in my native Spanish the only ones who would have understood me would have been the handful of Spanish native speakers and those who had taken Spanish 101.
English then – while accused of being an imperialistic language, and in fact, it has been used that way as when Britain the US were colonial powers and their settlers and missionaries imposed English in the countries they colonized — has also evolved as a trade language. For millennia, as traders from different language cultures have come into contact with one another in ports around the world, they developed common languages that allowed them to communicate with one another. Take Swahili, for example. It’s a trade language that for twelve centuries now has allowed traders from the Middle East and the East Coast of Africa to buy, sell, and negotiate with one another. Spoken by tens of millions at present, 35% of the Swahili vocabulary derives from the Arabic language and it has incorporated German, Portuguese, English, and French words into its vocabulary as well as created its own unique terms.
While the influences and span of time are different, the same can be said for English.
So here’s the irony: the more diverse and global the business world becomes, in order to have true inclusion, the more important it becomes to have a common language. And English, given its pervasiveness, emerges as the de facto trade language that enables a head start to those from different countries working together for the first time to connect with one another.
This paradox, of course, does not negate the power and need to communicate in various other languages. Cultural studies clearly show that learning someone else’s language goes a very long way in accelerating trust between those of other cultures. It also helps better understand a culture as one aims at becoming more crossculturally competent since language holds many secrets into better understanding a culture. It also does not remove the need to continue to ensure written documents, forms, training and marketing pieces, and so on are available in the primary languages of employees, suppliers, and customers.
But returning to the premise of the paradox of using the global language platform of English as an inclusion strategy, new possibilities pop up for diversity work. For more, see Part 2.