Why is English the International Language for Conducting Business?
Posted on March 25, 2014 by Chris
Over the course of the last 400 years, the use of English has grown and spread to such an extent that it has become the most widely used language in the world.
approximately 350 million first-language speakers in nearly one hundred territories, and estimates of a similar number for whom it is their second language, it has also been adopted as the unofficial international language of business. Its status as the language of business originally stems from the breadth and power of the British Empire and the international trade it fostered. As the Empire waned the use of English in business continued and it was an accident of timing that English happened to be the language of the dominant economic world power when globalisation reached a critical growth point.
Cross-border trade has grown exponentially in the digital age and the advantages of having a single, universally accepted and understood language of business makes a lot of practical sense. International companies and international trade requires people to communicate effectively across the globe. Translation and multilingual communication is important, but without a common language, its complexity quickly reduces business efficiency, pushing up costs and making cross-border businesses less attractive. It will always be difficult for multilingual companies to compete with those that use a single cross-border language incurring, as they will, higher transactions costs.
But if English has become the de facto business language because it is/was the language of the dominant economic power(s) does that mean the economic emergence of the East, and in particular China, could lead to a change in the language of business? The jury is out.
In a 2012 poll of 16,344 employed adults (conducted for Reuters by Ipsos Global Public Affairs) in 26 countries showed that 67 percent of workers who deal with people beyond their borders said English was the language used most often, with Spanish a very distant second at five percent. Furthermore the survey reveals that more than three quarters of people in North America said they used English most often to communicate with those in other countries, 63 percent in China said the same thing. These findings suggest that, rather than English speakers needing to learn Mandarin, it is the Mandarin speakers who are adopting English to get ahead in business. For its part, China shows far more interest in teaching hundreds of millions of people to speak English than in advancing Mandarin or Cantonese as a global language, for the moment at least…
There are some signs that the continued dominance of English as the language of business is not guaranteed and that we should begin to make contingencies for change. The British Academy highlighted, in a recent position statement, the fact that Britain is becoming more and more mono-linguistic, and theorises its lack of foreign language skills puts its commercial competitiveness at risk.
The paper argues that, as 75 percent of the world’s population do not speak English and that within 20 years most pages on the Internet will be in Chinese, we should not assume English will continue to be the dominant force it currently is. Already the proportion of Internet usage conducted in English is on the decline, falling from 51 to 29 per cent between 2000 and 2009. Is this the wake-up call to English speaking nations and businesses that a change may not be too far away, and that the languages we teach to the younger generations may also need to change if our competitive position is to be maintained?
For most global enterprises, wherever they are based, English is the language of international contact. It may be a crude way to bring the business world together, but it has worked – so far.