C Gopinath

The role of the English language in business

C Gopinath | Updated on February 25, 2020 Published on February 25, 2020

There is no doubt that a lingua franca within a company that operates across several countries can help improve efficiencies

Adoption of the widely-known language as the lingua franca helps companies looking for a global standing. But, in the digital era, will its importance change?

Words sometimes take on a different meaning when they move to another language. Pandit, a respectable title in Sanskrit, has become a derogatory term in English (eg media pundits). So also, the sacred cow in Hinduism became a ‘sacred cow’, to be laughed at or challenged. Yet, we all love the English language. We swear that it gave us a headstart in the global economy, never mind the Chinese or Japanese.

Wikipedia asserts that at over two billion, it is the largest language by number of speakers. Only about 20 per cent are native speakers. It is also the dominant language of business, the computer field, and the Internet.

So many organisations who want to operate globally choose English as their lingua franca, even if they originate or commence operations in another language. The Chinese-owned computer firm Lenovo and the Swiss-Swedish engineering company ASEA BrownBoveri, among others, officially chose English as their language for internal communication.

Rakuten’s experience

A recent case study is Rakuten. The Japanese company began in 1997 in e-commerce before diversifying into other activities. In 2010, CEO Hiroshi Mikitani decided to introduce ‘Englishnisation’ (his term) to make English the lingua franca of the company. Mikitani’s objective was to have a common language within the company in line with global communication as a way to further his global ambitions of growth. He also wanted his organisation to break away from the Japanese hierarchy-dominated cultural style. About 70 per cent of Rakuten’s 10,000 employees were mostly Japanese, with little knowledge of English. Initially, Mikitani set a two-year deadline for the transition, and the employees had to find their places to learn on their own. If they did not meet targeted test scores, they may even be demoted. Imagine the stress that would cause!

When Mikitani realised this method wasn’t working, he made the process more human, by offering classes in the offices and getting middle management involved, and started seeing better results. Author Tsedal Neeley, who records this experience in his book The Language of Global Success (2017, Princeton University Press), describes the challenges the company faced through its journey of language standardisation. He explains that the company refined its goals by deciding that it wanted the Japanese management style and cultural values to be retained, while the language of communication in management changed. This helped the majority of the Japanese employees realise that their identity was not threatened, and that they had something to share to the process too. The company has been keeping its global ambitions going by acquisitions and greenfield ventures operating in 27 countries and feels the lingua franca has helped not only enter new markets but also to find resources, especially human talent.

Language dominance

Language does not seem to be a problem for Toyota and Nintendo, who dominate the world. But in the era of digital technology and services, it well could matter. Rakuten’s experience has also helped Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe see the English language as a way of breaking away from the ‘island syndrome’ he thinks Japan is suffering from, and supports English language education reform in the country (The Japanese do learn the language in schools but never develop familiarity with its use).

There is no doubt that a lingua franca within a company that operates across several countries can help improve efficiencies. Communication will not be misinterpreted and decisions could be faster. And the reach of the English language comes with its own inherent advantages. But is the need for a common language relevant anymore? Tech companies have made a lot of progress in simultaneous translation software and it is improving daily. Very soon, our phones will become an invisible interface when we need to communicate in a different language. Are the days of English dominance past its prime?

The author is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on February 25, 2020
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