English – The New Lingua Franca?

Spoken language and the written word are the DNA of everyday life and of business. In fact, without the written word or spoken language, we would not even know about DNA or many other scientific inventions. The advent of the first formulaic system of writing, i.e. a set of symbols denoting words, was invented roughly 3,000 – 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Things then stayed pretty much the same until medieval times which heralded the arrival of the printing press and put the power of the printed word into the hands of the common man or woman, if they were lucky enough to be able to read. Jump forward a few centuries and the power of the written word, whilst nominally free to all, remained in the hands of governments, powerful cliques and media conglomerates under media barons like Randolph Hearst and nowadays Rupert Murdoch, and Kerry Packer.

Then along came the internet and tossed a proverbial hand grenade into this cosy relationship, knocking the media world off its axis. The ripples of this seismic shift, which heralded the arrival of the digital age, are still being felt and while the big media players are not heading for the lifeboats just yet, they have donned their lifejackets, and are peering over the bows looking for the next iceberg.

Anyone who doubted the power of social media, and all the naysayers who passed off Facebook and Twitter as fleeting fads, have had to eat their words after the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ last year. Business, however, is still mainly watching from a distance as how to effectively harness social media. At the moment it is still seen as somewhat of a ‘dangerous animal’ which can ruin a business’s reputation in a few hours if a negative story goes ‘viral’.

The arrival of the digital age also crowned the age of globalisation, which shrank the globe to a virtual village. The question on everyone’s lips is how will business be done in the future, and how best should we communicate to succeed? We all need, in a word, language. What language will be the lingua franca of business in the 21st century?

Oddly enough, the road of making predictions is littered with those whose predictions went far wide of the mark. First up in the 1980s came the Japanese. For much of the decade the Far Eastern country ran rings around the sluggish US and Europe. Many suggested that we should get busy learning the language as the Japanese looked set for world domination. Alas, as Japan slipped into the ‘lost decade’, their only lingering export which achieved global domination was karaoke.

Next up, the Russians. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and ‘Glasnost’ had thawed, the former USSR became Russia again in the late 1990s; a torrent of petrodollars flooded in from the East. Once more the language experts shouted ‘Thar’s gold in them thar hills’ and Russian was predicted as the ‘next big thing’. The answer was a resounding ‘nyet’ and Russian never really took off to a great extent.

Bringing ourselves right up to date, we have Mandarin Chinese, which dovetails nicely with the current flavour of the month, English. Some pundits suggested that Mandarin Chinese is set to become the next global language. However, this can soon be given short shrift and mostly by the Chinese themselves. Namely, from the 300 million or so Chinese people who are learning English. Put simply, English is currently winning the race to become the lingua franca of the world. This can be explained by a myriad of reasons. Firstly, it would seem to be the legacy of the UK’s colonial empire. While the UK’s economic and military power has relegated itself to the second tier of world powers, its main legacy still exists via the English language. Amongst the emerging BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), India has a population of 1 billion, with an English speaking population of around 120 million (twice the population of the UK) and growing. So successful has India been in harnessing English as a business tool, Mumbai is now home to a burgeoning call centre industry handling calls for UK-based businesses.

The colonial legacy of language has its most important resonance via the USA. Despite hoofing out their colonial masters in the late 1700s, the fledgling country did keep the language. And as the sun set on the British Empire, it came up on the ‘American Century’. Hence the language continued to be propagated via the tentacles of globalisation. The facts speak for themselves. There are somewhere between 380–400 million native speakers of English, and at least as many others speaking it as a second language. A British Council study (2004) predicted that in the next decade there will be 2 billion people speaking English, around half the world’s population.

Whether these predictions come true or not, the fact remains that English seems to be the new lingua franca for business.