First of all let us consider what a lingua franca is. In the words of the linguist Nicholas Ostler, a lingua franca is ‘a language that you learn because you need, because you want to.’ In contrast, Ostler defines a mother tongue as ‘… a language that you learn because you can’t help it’.
What is the current situation? The Financial Times published an article in 2007 entitled ‘Whose English?’ This article estimated that the number of native speakers of English was 400 million whereas one quarter of the world’s population can communicate in this language. About 80% of all interactions in English take place between non-native speakers. The globalisation of business operations and communication technology has helped bring about this situation.How did English become today’s lingua franca for business? The spread of English can be traced back to the settlement of North America when the British took over areas of land from native populations and established English as the language that subsequent immigrants would speak. English was also taken to India and other countries around the globe as part of 19th Century imperialism. After the Second World War, English became increasingly popular as it was associated with the new world order. The cultural and economic clout of the countries where English was spoken encouraged and obliged many political elites and companies to adopt this language.
Currently business English’s position as a lingua franca is upheld by the economic might of the United States and Britain. However, the influence of the two economic powers has recently been shaken by the banking crisis and the consequent economic downturn. This situation shows how things can change. Maybe in the future Chinese companies will be in a position to oblige ‘foreign’ companies to use Chinese to do business with them? It is also worth considering that the number of Americans who have Spanish as their mother tongue is increasing rapidly.
But before this situation occurs, international businessmen or entrepreneurs will still need to use English during their international meetings or business negotiations. Consequently, professionals working internationally can benefit immensely from business English training courses which will allow them to communicate effectively with their foreign counterparts.