English is the language of the global village but we risk getting lost in translation


OPINION:FORFÁS RECENTLY issued an urgent call for export executives and students to learn the languages of our future and potential export markets. They referred, in particular, to Brazil, China and Russia.

In earlier decades the cry was our need for executives with fluency in French, German and Spanish. In the 1970s we were told we must study Japanese, as Japan was the rising economic superpower. How much demand is there today for Japanese-speaking executives?

This is a bewildering and confusing challenge for Irish executives and graduates: a strong case can be made for studying each of the languages of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing markets.

Export executives know it takes many hours learning a language to be able to hold the simplest conversation or follow a discussion. In addition, a competence in Chinese will be of little use in Russia or Brazil. The same issues confront young graduates hoping to work in international business by joining multinational corporations or professional services firms.

Business executives in other countries have no language choice dilemma. They know English is the language of world commerce and trade. It is also the language of academia, medicine and science. Students know that whatever career they choose they will need competence in English to progress in it.

Many multinational corporations have made English the language of senior management. Ericsson of Sweden, Siemens of Germany and Lafarge of France have all mandated English as the language of senior management communication. Nordea, a merger of several banks in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, decided that establishing English as its corporate language would iron out imbalances in executive communication.

NTT, the large Japanese telecoms company, decided to make English the language of its international operations. Having studied interaction between native English-speaking executives and other executives with competence in English, they decided that reports and company communications would be drafted by non-native speakers.

Their studies showed native English speakers use hard-to-grasp expressions and idioms, and speak too quickly. They found that reports and documents written by, say, a German or Spanish executive used simple sentences and plain vocabulary and were more welcomed by a multinational workforce.

One of the first people to identify this uneasy relationship between native and non-native English speakers was an IBM executive responsible for multinational company operations. Having studied the issue for some time, Jean-Paul Nerrière wrote some articles in 1995 proposing that an idiom-free and essentially dull vocabulary of some 1,500 English words would suffice for basic business communication. Later he developed courses and published on this new language, which he called Globish.

While English is the world language of commerce, technology, science and education, it is also very rich, idiomatic and expressive.

Many foreign executives achieve competence in English but are deeply frustrated by native speakers’ idiomatic use of the language in conversation.

Many international conversations in English go well until a British or indeed Irish executive joins the conversation. The non-native speakers hold back. Studies have shown that when the native speaker leaves the room conversation and communication improves.

Because so many English speakers are monoglots, they have little idea how difficult it is to acquire another language. Many think the best way to make foreigners understand and feel at ease is to be chatty and informal. Irish people in particular are prone to this approach. Use of phrases such as “let’s get cracking” or “brush up on” just cause confusion and inhibit communication.

Anyone wanting to get to the top in international business or trade needs to be able to speak English to a pretty high level. Equally, any native English speaker wanting to deal with foreign executives needs to know how to talk to them in a way that facilitates communication, rather than hindering it.

Some four billion people around the world claim to understand English. We should now concentrate on training our export executives and graduates in how to speak to the world in a way that aids communication and mutual understanding.

Perhaps courses in Globish would be a starting point.

Alan McCarthy is a former chief executive of Córas Tráchtála, the Irish Trade Board

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