Chapter 2: The truth and the hype about “global English”

There are many excuses for not learning a foreign language. However, the 800-lb gorilla among them is the “Global English” argument. This argument can be summed up as follows:

Why do I need to learn a foreign language when everyone in the world is learning English?

This is not a stupid question, and we will answer it in depth in this book. As it turns out, the worldwide significance of English is undeniable, but the role of English as a “global language” is often misunderstood.

Fragmentary English is everywhere

Get off an airplane in Brussels, Tokyo, or Taipei, and you will find signs written in English. In the same airport, the customs agent who asks you if you have anything to declare will probably ask the question in English.  When you check out of your hotel, you will notice that a lot of English is written on the credit card receipt—especially if you have stayed in a major hotel in a large city.

If there is an antiwar protest somewhere in Europe this weekend, the protesters will mostly be holding signs with slogans written in the local language. Depending on the country, it might be “Keine Krieg!”, “Pas de guerre!”, or “Geen oorlog!” etc. But you will also be likely to see at least a few signs bearing the English equivalent: “No War!” The protesters realize that on an international scale, more CNN viewers will recognize these phrases in English than will understand the same words in German, French, or Dutch.

Many people who recognize fragmentary snippets of English could not begin to hold a real conversation in English. This makes sense when you consider that you also recognize many words and phrases in languages that you don’t actually “speak”. Below is a sample of foreign words and phrases that many Americans have absorbed through the media and popular culture:

Word/Phrase

Language

Meaning

Vaya con Diós

Spanish

Go with God

Estás en tu casa.

Spanish

Make yourself at home

Insha Allah

Arabic

God willing

Sayonara

Japanese

Goodbye

Merci

French

Thank you

Bon jour

French

Good day

Excusez-moi

French

Excuse me; I’m sorry

Guten Tag

German

Good day; Hello

You probably recognize at least a few of these. And with a little practice, you could use them to hold basic conversations. If you held the door for a Spanish-speaker and she said “Muchas gracias,” you would likely understand her meaning. Perhaps you would even be able to respond with the Spanish De nada (“You’re welcome”).

In fact, you probably know a lot of Spanish words: , pronto, adiós, hóla,etc. Spanish is the language in which most Americans would score the highest on a phrase recognition test. Many Americans understand fragments of Spanish because: a.) Spanish is a popular academic subject in the American school system, and b.) Latino culture has made significant inroads into the United States.

Because of these same factors, many non-English-speakers can recognize bits and pieces of English. English is a popular academic subject throughout the world, and American popular culture has a global appeal. Say “Hello” to someone just about anywhere in the world, and the odds are pretty good that they will understand that you are trying to be friendly. “Thank you,” “Goodbye,” and “My name is….,” are also generally recognized throughout the world.

“Speaking English” vs. “knowing some English”

As a vehicle of concise messages, English is as ubiquitous as Latin was a thousand years ago, or as French was two hundred years ago. And in this role, English is indispensable. Since ancient times, there has always been a recognized need for a lingua franca—a common tongue that can be used for basic communication purposes by people who speak different languages. Throughout history, various languages have fulfilled this role. Depending on the time and place, Aramaic, Latin, French, Russian and Greek have enjoyed significant lingua franca status.

In recent decades, however, the undisputed lingua franca has been English. While English is not likely to lose its lingua franca status anytime soon, it is important to keep in mind exactly what a lingua franca is—and is not. Lingua francas are primarily useful for superficial, routine communications. It therefore makes sense that English is used worldwide for administrative miscellanea such as airport signs, customs transactions, etc. These subjects require a limited amount of vocabulary, and only a superficial knowledge of grammar.

If you have ever traveled abroad, then you may have had the following experience: You address someone in English within a limited conversational framework, and they seem to understand you perfectly. As long as you stay within a standard “script” of questions and answers, everything is fine. However, communications quickly break down when you attempt to broach more complex topics. 

Consider the situation from the opposite perspective. Think back to your days of high school French class. You may have learned enough French to get an “A” in the course, and you may have been able to read basic texts. Nonetheless, your practical abilities in French were probably quite limited. Could you, for example, have passed your high school Calculus class if it had been taught entirely in French? And what if someone were to call you up this afternoon, years later, and start speaking French at you out of the blue?

“Global English” is “English-Lite”

“Global English” is a stripped-down subset of the English language that is spoken by Americans, Britons, and other native speakers. The version of English heard in airports, corporate boardrooms, and hotels throughout the world is characterized by a restricted vocabulary and only the rudiments of grammar.

An article in the New York Times said that Global English is “neither English nor American…It’s some sort of operating language. It loses quite a lot of nuance.” In some situations, this loss of nuance presents no problems. Streamlined versions of English have been around for years, and they have functioned well for limited interchanges. For example, airline pilots and ocean navigators have long used standard lines of English-based jargon for communicating with personnel in seaports and airports around the world. These situations lend themselves to a scripted approach. 

When the practice is used for complex communications, however, the result is a breakdown in mutual understanding. And it doesn’t take a conversation about astrophysics or existentialism to reveal the weaknesses of scripted English. Even a nonstandard exchange in an airport can quickly degenerate into mutual incomprehension. An Amazon.com reviewer of the first edition of this book recounted the following experience in France:

“Even as a mere tourist, I was told repeatedly before a trip to Paris that “everybody there speaks English” and that I would never need to use my beginning French. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Try losing your passport in the airport, as I did, and trying to negotiate what steps to take next, without knowing French. Thankfully, my far-more-fluent brother was with me, or I might still be there!”

A guest who participated in a roundtable discussion on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Lingua Franca” program had the following to say about Global English (or, as he calls it, “international English”):

“…the English that is spoken around the world as a second language by most people is an absolutely lousy English. It’s appalling, there is this sort of international English whereby everybody thinks they can speak it…international English is really an absolute bastard of a language…. the fact that English is the world’s second language is really debasing English.”

The commentator was admittedly taking a rather harsh stance. However, there is no doubt that the English being used abroad is a stripped-down version of what Americans or Britons would consider authentic English.

At the very least, “Global English” is inarticulate English.

Measuring linguistic abilities

When a non-native English-speaker uses English, our first impulse is to think, “Oh, that person speaks English.” This hasty conclusion overlooks an important fact: a person who speaks English as a second language may know only a tiny fraction of the language that we use on a daily basis. The measurement of linguistic abilities is complicated. An individual’s abilities in a foreign language can seldom be appraised simply as “speaks X language” or “does not speak X language”. Rather, language skills must be measured along an incrementally ascending continuum.

It is difficult to quantify how much English an individual needs to know before one can reasonably say that he or she “speaks English.” A person who might easily pass for a competent speaker of English in a routine airport situation might not qualify as an English speaker if business or technical issues are involved.

Given the functional nature of language, “knowledge” must be distinguished from “capability.” There are millions of people in the non-English-speaking world who have some knowledge of English. But it is equally valid to say that the average American high school graduate has some knowledge of Spanish, French, or German. However, few Americans can claim any real functional skills in these languages.

It is easy to jump to conclusions when practically everyone outside the English-speaking world seems to know “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.” In a business situation, the issue is critical: A nonnative speaker of English who handles simple topics quite fluently might grasp less than ten percent of the sales presentation that you deliver in English.

A functional approach to English

Non-native speakers of English are quick to acknowledge the difference between a knowledge of English and functional skill in English. When Yukari Akiyama, a Japanese business/career consultant, hosted an online discussion about the necessity of English skills in the workplace, one thirty-six-year-old programmer responded: 英語が話せることと、英語を使って仕事をすることは違う。(“There is a difference between the ability to speak English and the ability to use English to get the job done.”) He then went on to explain that he and his colleagues really only need to decipher an occasional document in English. Their office deals primarily with Japanese customers, so there is no real incentive to pour lots of time and effort into learning English.

This minimalist approach to learning English is common abroad, where professionals often compare English to a utilitarian aptitude like accounting. This rule holds even in Western Europe, where English skills are generally higher than they are in Asia or Latin America. Subramanian Rangan is an associate professor of strategy in the Insead business school near Paris. In a 2002 New York Times article, professor Rangan described the use of English in European firms as “shallow.” He elaborated: “I doubt it [English] is in the board room, and it’s not on the factory floor…So it’s a narrow sliver. It’s not in labor relations, and it’s not in customer relations.”

The degeneration of the lingua franca

In theory, English is an effective means of communication among non-native speakers of the language. In other words, if a French company and a German company are working on a joint project, they could use English—rather than German or French—as a working language.

Some European firms have implemented English as the language for cross-border communications between groups that do not speak it natively—often resulting in confusion. Global English typically loses its basic functionality when it is employed in situations in which there are no native speakers present. One Spanish engineer described the “descent into babble” that occurs when his colleagues in Spain and France attempt to discuss complex issues via email in English.

This is confirmed by my own experience in the multinational corporate environment. I have seen English-language email chains between Japanese and Thais that break down to the point where no group—neither the Japanese, the Thais, nor the Americans (who have been carbon copied)—understand the communication. I have also seen considerable confusion occur when Japanese and Thais attempt to verbally discuss complex ideas in English. They would be better off using either Japanese or Thai.

  The tendency toward linguistic degeneration underlines a key limitation of any lingua franca. When native speakers of the language are not present, second-language speakers tend to modify the language at will. If I speak German with my German colleague, his native mastery of German will keep me from taking too many liberties with his language. On the other hand, if I try to speak German with my Japanese colleague, we will eventually be speaking something that only resembles German.

The degeneration of the lingua franca used by non-native speakers is a historical fact. The Latin spoken as a lingua franca in the Roman provinces of Gaul and Iberia eventually became so distinct from the real thing that French, Spanish, and Portuguese—three mutually unintelligible languages—emerged in its place.

This process was ultimately productive in the case of Latin, as several new languages were created over centuries of use and misuse of the Roman tongue. However, English is used internationally with the aim of establishing clear communications—not inventing new languages.

A quote from European Commission President Romano Prodi sheds light on the natural degeneration that occurs when English is used as a lingua franca on Continental Europe—where no one speaks English as a native language. Speaking to a reporter for Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, Prodi described the way in which the English spoken by European Union officials has been drastically pared down to express simple ideas. In many situations, fragments of other languages are even inserted into English sentences:

“’Everyday matters will be dealt with in a certain kind of Kitchen English in the same way that people spoke Latin in the Middle Ages’, Prodi said.

By ‘Kitchen English’ Prodi was referring to the fact that the English spoken at the EU is seldom perfect. Also, there is a tendency in the hallways of Brussels and Strasbourg to combine English and other languages. A German might say ‘vielleicht’ (“perhaps”) in the middle of an English language sentence, or an Italian might say ‘pronto’ when asking that something be done quickly.”

A realistic approach to lingua francas

None of this is meant to imply that foreigners who learn just enough English to get by are mere dilettantes. The mastery of a foreign language takes dedicated effort. Even basic proficiency requires some skill. And we Anglophones are in no position to accuse others of linguistic provincialism. The average nonnative speaker of English still gets much farther than does the typical American or Briton with foreign language exposure.

However, it is a mistake to assume that all foreigners have received a genetic download of fluent English. This seems to be the assumption of Americans who return from abroad with claims that the residents in a non-English-speaking country “pretended that they didn’t understand English,” when in fact—they understood only a little. We should not be surprised when we are met with stares of incomprehension. All things being equal, it is as difficult for a French speaker to become fluent in English as it is for an English speaker to master français.

There are, of course, nonnative English speakers who have thoroughly mastered our language due to special circumstances, such as extended residence in Great Britain, or the opportunity to earn an advanced degree in Canada or the United States. However, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. In most overseas situations, you will need to talk to people who have had to study English in their own country, as just one more academic subject.

English is in fact a “world language”—for very basic communications. Limiting yourself to English therefore limits your capabilities to communicate with others. Even travelers who interact with the international tourist industry often find that English alone is insufficient to meet their communication needs. For businesspeople, the implications are even more important: English may be sufficient to help you find the baggage claim area in Narita airport, but it is not going to be enough to get your company a new contract with a potential client in Tokyo. If you want to share more complex, nuanced ideas with non-English-speakers, then you will likely need skills in another language. 

Chapter 2 Appendix: Language and popular culture

In 1956, the average American would probably not have understood the Spanish phrase, Que será,será. This minor obstacle didn’t prevent the Doris Day song of the same title from appealing to an English-speaking American audience. The song’s composers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, cleverly inserted the English translation of Que será,será into the refrain, so that non-Spanish speakers could immediately grasp the meaning.

In 1959, the Spanish-language song La Bamba was a hit in the American youth music market. La Bamba was Ritchie “Valens” Valenzuela’s adaptation of a traditional Mexican folk song that is often sung by Mariachi bands. In the wake of the song’s popularity, the Spanish interjection “arriba” enjoyed a brief period of popularity among American teens.

In 1987, the Mexican-American group Los Lobos produced a  new version of La Bamba for a movie about the life of Ritchie Valens. The Los Lobos version of the piece became the first Spanish-language song to reach the #1 position on the American charts. Throughout the 1990s, a series of Latin crossover artists enjoyed similar success with Spanish-language titles in the American market: Los Del Rio, Jon Secada, Selena, etc. In some cases, these successes resulted in the popularization of certain Spanish words and phrases. Most Americans of a certain age group now have at least an inkling of what the words la vida loca mean. (However, no one would confuse this knowledge with real proficiency in the Spanish language. Ritchie Valens and Selena were among the artists who succeeded with Spanish-language songs although they did not speak the language well themselves.)

Similarly, the diffusion of American movies and music throughout the world has assisted the diffusion of fragmentary English. I recently saw a CNN report about a Bolivian rap group that peppers its Spanish and Quechua lyrics with bits of American English slang. Like some of their American counterparts, these rap artists felt free to adopt phrases of a foreign language that they do not necessarily speak.

In much of the world, English has even become a fashion statement of sorts. If you travel to Tokyo, Seoul, or Berlin, you will likely see tee shirts, baseball caps, and travel bags adorned with random English phrases. The examples I have noticed over the years include “Big Company,”  “Hello, my darling,” and (my personal favorite) “Rock my Dogs.”

We see examples of the same practice in the United States. Over the past ten years or so, Asian characters have become popular fashion statements. I was sitting in traffic the other day when I noticed a decal on the car in front of me that bore the following words:

高速

The above characters (koosoku in Japanese or gao su in Chinese) translate into English as “high speed.” Given the the context, the driver likely knew the English translation of the characters on the decal. This does not necessarily mean that he could hold a conversation in Chinese or Japanese. The same goes for the many Americans who now have tattoos with the Chinese characters for love ( ), power (), or freedom (自由).

Ding hao!

The Flying Tigers were a group of American fighter pilots who volunteered to fight against the Japanese in Burma and China in the early days of World War II, before the United States formally entered the war. The Flying Tigers often adorned the fuselages of their planes with the words “Ding Hao!” The Chinese word, (顶好), means “well done!” or “very good!”

Few of the Flying Tigers actually learned to speak Chinese. (They were otherwise occupied!). Nevertheless, this Chinese phrase became a popular exclamation among the pilots.

Foreignness sells

In the non-English-speaking world, marketers often give a product an English (or quasi-English) name to give it an air of the exotic. I recently visited the website of the Japanese company NEC, and I saw product names like Valuestar G and Smart Vision targeted at the Japanese market. (NEC was also giving Japanese consumers a dose of French. One of its products is called LaVie.)

Once again, there are parallels within the English-speaking world. You may have noticed that many cosmetic products in the United States are given French names (or French-sounding names). Although only a fraction of the American consumer market has any reasonable command of French, cosmetics companies give their products names like eau de parfum and eau de toilette. (And if the cosmetics company happens to be European, it seldom anglicizes the name of the product for the American market.)

Restaurants also have a penchant for going Gaulish. In my home town of Cincinnati, there is an upscale restaurant called The Maisonette. In restaurant circles, one constantly hears raw French terminology like nouvelle cuisine and haute cuisine, even though these same ideas could be expressed in English.

French words are used in the above examples because giving a product a French name somehow makes it seem more refined, unique, or even exotic. French is by no means the only foreign language that is used for marketing purposes in the United States. Italian and Spanish names are also favorites. Consider the Ford Fiesta, the Honda Del Sol, and the Cadillac El Dorado.

“It doesn’t go.”

You may have heard the old story about the Chevy Nova, and the translation of this car’s name in Spanish. The syllables no va mean “doesn’t go” in Spanish. According to an often repeated urban legend, this embarrassing linguistic gaffe forced Chevrolet to pull the car off the market in Latin America.  Latin American buyers reportedly confused Nova for no va, and rejected the vehicle.

However, there is no real evidence to support this story.  In fact, the Chevy Nova actually sold well in several Latin American countries.

If you pointed to a car in a Spanish-speaking country and said “no va,” people would understand what you meant. But a native Spanish-speaker would be more likely to use the phrase “no funciona” to describe a car that wasn’t working properly.

Moreover, “Nova” is pronounced without a pause, as a single word. The correct Spanish pronunciation of no va distinguishes the division between the two words with a clear pause.  In the same way, native English-speakers would be unlikely to confuse the pronunciation of the word “dragnet” with the words “drag net”—unless the speaker was making a deliberate attempt at phonetic ambiguity.

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