Well-respected linguist and author Nicholas Ostler argued in an interview once that Business English is a fleeting phenomenon that will one day die out: “At the moment, English-speaking groups are very much in their ascendancy, but there is only one way to go from ascendancy”. Even English as a language in general is likely to follow the path of Latin, he suggests, marking its place in linguistic history before seeping into the ether. However, this remains a distinctly long-term view.
While languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and Portuguese are becoming increasingly more powerful, English continues to hold centre stage in international business and has a long way to go before it fades out. Despite this, there are many current challenges to English, and consequently the lingua franca of Business English, which may add weight to the view that English will not remain in its superior position forever?
“Half the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers”
Recently, there appears to have been greater encouragement from leaders to reaffirm indigenous languages. This comes after years of leaders trying to push for more reliance on internationally important languages such as English. Ostler, who also runs the Foundation for Endangered Languages, points out that half of the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers and that these populations are continuing to decrease.
There is a fear that some languages will be lost altogether and with that, a part of culture and dignity. Self-determination, pride and practicality motivate such moves and as such, there is a big effort in many regions of the world to transfer these dying languages from one generation to another.
Efforts like these emphasise a fundamental difference between lingua franca languages, such as Business English, and native, mother-tongue languages. Business English, or Globish, is a relatively young language which responds to a global requirement to maximise communication and comprehension in international settings. However, regional languages, including English for native speakers, have much deeper roots.
Regional languages are learnt and absorbed intuitively from birth, whereas lingua francas, like Business English, are learnt consciously at a later stage for a specific purpose. This presents a challenge to Business English because it significantly reduces its chances of survival. Once the need for Business English dies out, so too could the language itself.
“English is spoken by less than 20% of the world’s people, but 68% of the internet’s websites are in English”
How then is English as a mother-tongue affected? A UNESCO study determined that children learn better in their native language than they do in a foreign language. Countries such as Uganda and Madagascar have since returned to educating their children in their mother tongue, not in English or French. With the removal of this initial reliance on English, it’s possible that African and Asian countries might start doing more internal business in their mother tongue, which could reduce the importance of other languages such as English.
UNESCO promotes the view that native languages are important and should be valued and preserved. One clear example in their report highlights a shocking contrast within English language dominance: “English is spoken by less than 20% of the world’s people, but 68% of the internet’s web-pages are in English”.
It seems that after years of colonial rule, countries are reasserting their independent identities. The choice of language used in a setting can, ironically, make statements that speak louder than words. Choosing to embrace native languages over dominant international languages such as Business English can send a message to the world that says ‘we can function without you’.
“80% of the world’s people do not speak English”
For this very reason, native English speakers should not get too comfortable with the idea that their language is spoken by everyone. As Ostler noted, around 80% of the world’s people do not speak English. It is common to go abroad and find locals who do not have a grasp of the language, and nor, necessarily, should they. Although native English speakers may appear to have an advantage in the business world, they are also at risk. In negotiations, for example, a group of foreign colleagues can switch easily into their native language, putting their native English counterparts very much in the dark about what is being discussed.
English is being further challenged by the variations that are taking hold in many parts of the world. Variations, such as Globish, often sound very different from the standard form of English and could possibly become languages in their own right. As language is in a state of constant change there has been a natural evolution away from the Standard English left behind during colonial times.
In Nigeria, there are about 50 million speakers of Nigerian Pidgin English, a language consisting of English words interspersed with phrases from Nigeria’s other 500 languages. Although it is the de facto lingua franca, it holds no official status in the country. Other examples of new vernaculars are Singalese in Singapore and Taglish spoken in the Philippines.
In tomorrow’s world we might see a new language prosper and English might become the language of the past. However, the current dominance of English in social and business environments around the world is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. For the moment, it appears that the world has found a solution to global communication and Business English thrives. Taking a Business English course can improve your performance in the international business arena and help individuals from all nationalities to learn the specific English that is truly relevant to the professional world.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011