English as a Lingua Franca

Why is English the language of global business?
Simon Williams
By Simon Williams
Excedo blog in Learning reimagined Feb, 2019

It is an accident of history that a language from an obscure northern European island should have become the world’s second tongue. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the role English plays as the language of global business, in spite of its many complexities and idiosyncrasies.

English, with its unique grammatical patterns and spelling, might seem a less-than-perfect choice for international communication. But it has a unique set of advantages. Not only are there English speaking communities dispersed across the world, but the language itself is endlessly adaptable - and indeed acquisitive. Few languages have so easily adopted and embraced foreign words and concepts with such ease.

Flexibility is one of the reasons why some 1.75 billion people can use English to achieve the communicative goals important to their lives, despite the noticeable non-standard grammar and pronunciation. We see it in the proliferation of various English Pidgins from the Kriol used by Australian aborigines to India “Kitchen English” to Nigerian Pidgin.

English therefore has the preeminent claim to be the lingua franca of international business; the inheritor of vulgate Latin or the “marketplace Greek” that was spoken and understood throughout the Eastern Roman Empire for centuries.

Since there is no single guardian of English like the Académie française, it is far from being a complex, unwieldy tongue. In fact, the language and those who use it are remarkably forgiving of mistakes, especially when compared to tonal languages where a slight mistake can completely alter the intended meaning.

Learning the lingua franca

More than any other language, English belongs to anyone who has a desire or need to use it, and should no longer be seen as a language belonging to distinct groups, cultures or nations. In Salman Rushdie’s words, “people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it”. But this is rarely reflected in the way that English is taught. Too often, language courses focus on the traditional rules and structures that underpin the language rather than encouraging learners to gain the confidence that will make them effective communicators.

This problem is accentuated in cultures where there is a tradition of very strict academic standards of success – and a corresponding fear of making mistakes. For example, in Japan many learners are prone to focussing on accuracy rather than the effective and timely sharing of meaning. In seeking to speak error-free English, learners end up tongue-tied – with the result that their confidence suffers and their ability to convey meaning diminishes.

English is well placed to remain the lingua franca of global business, but it can’t afford to rest on its laurels. What’s needed is a fresh teaching approach: one that prioritises the ability to communicate effectively over the traditional ideals of perfect grammar and pronunciation. This requires much more than a change in pedagogy. Instead, we need to identify the situations in which our learners are likely to use English in the real world, this is especially true for business professionals. Instead of ticking off discrete areas of linguistics such as verb forms and lexical sets, we need to simulate the kind of day-to-day tasks encountered in the workplace, such as facilitating calls with international participants, or delegating tasks to remote teams. The emphasis should always be on the successful completion of these communicative tasks and what the likely impact will be on business partners in the real world.

statistics - Languages with most speakers:  English, Chinese, Hindi & Spanish

We must focus on building learners’ confidence and fluency, rather than chasing a culturally specific native-standard of English. We must empower our learners and ensure our learners foster a strong connection with their English-speaking self. The ability to communicate across the globe will naturally lead to much wider benefits for learners and their organisations, while imbuing greater cultural awareness and interest.

This is different from condoning, accepting or even encouraging linguistic errors. Where mistakes prevent someone from communicating their intended meaning, these should be identified and corrected. Even better, however, is to give learners the language they need to check that they have been properly understood, and to ask for feedback from the person to whom they’re speaking.

There was a time when every merchant from Rio de Janeiro to Dar es Salaam could speak English well enough to make themselves understood not only to the British, but to traders from all four corners of the world. Few of them, we imagine, would have passed a standardised English exam. We need to recapture this attitude and recognise what motivates business professionals today: to be active participants in a global world.

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Simon Williams shares his experience as a language learner