The English language is, far and away, the dominant language of international business. It is used in offices thousands of miles away from any native English speaker. It is heard in the German postal service, Finnish manufacturing companies, and the Chinese textile industry (Rogerson-Revell 2007: 104, Nickerson 2010: 511). The universality of English is undeniably useful, providing a communicative bridge between people who would never have a common language otherwise, and opening up new markets for businesses all over the world. It has been used to facilitate company mergers across international borders, such as Paper Giant and Scandi Bank in Sweden and Finland (Nickerson 2010: 514). But do all people benefit from this situation equally? And what price are they paying for their new lingua franca?
Rogerson-Revell (2007) investigated the status of English at the Groupe Consultatif Actuariel Europeen (GCAE), a multi-cultural group of financial risk assessors who provide legislative advice to the European Parliament. English is used for the majority of the Groupe’s meetings, despite native English speakers constituting a minority of its members. All non-native English speakers in the Groupe described difficulties communicating in English-language meetings, such as finding the right words, and translating their thoughts in time to participate in a conversation. (2007: 115-7). One participant described a time when they were thinking of the right English words to use to make a point, and the meeting moved on to another topic before they were able to speak (2007: 111). Another said it was often “easier to be quiet” than try to express their ideas in English. (2007: 116). Native English speakers in the Groupe were also aware that they held an “unfair advantage” over non-native English speakers (2007: 117).
In certain contexts, then, the use of English in International Business creates a hierarchy. Native English speakers find it much easier to express their opinions than non-native English speakers, which, to quote concerned members of the GCAE, results in “the dominance of Anglo Saxon ideas” (2007: 112). This suggests that, while non-native English speakers benefit from having a common language with a greater number of potential business partners, they suffer the consequences of having to compete in the boardroom with people who can use their mutual tool of communication with greater fluency than they ever will.
English does not only dominate business, it is a business. The British Council, one of the largest English teaching organisations in the world, made £705 million turnover in the financial year 2009-2010 (Gray 2012: 141). The high demand for English therefore has a direct financial benefit for British individuals and companies, and this demand exists in part due to English’s association with international business markets, an association which pervades as far as Japan and Thailand (Nickerson 2010: 515).
In 1996, President Kagame of Rwanda made English the new language of education in his nation, opening up a new market for the British Council’s services. There were a number of political factors affecting this decision, but not the least of them was Kagame’s desire to access the customs union of the Anglophone East African Community (Gray 2012: 144). However, as only a tiny minority of Rwandans spoke English at the time, the ability of teachers and students to teach and learn was hugely damaged, doing so as they were in a completely foreign language (Gray 2012: 145). So at the same time that new incomes and career opportunities were being created for the British, Rwandans were almost completely losing their access to even a basic education.
We can see then, that whatever the benefits of English as a lingua franca are, they do not apply to all people equally. Native English speakers are profiting a great deal from the increasing demand for English in business and education, and the same demand is drawing opportunity and wealth away from native speakers of other languages. So while English in international business may be considered ‘good’, it is certainly not equally good for everyone.
SAM COPSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK