Is English an International Language? – Part 1

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English: Hypothetical flag quartering the Brit...

English: Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned a while ago that I had several writing projects that were coming up, and the first of them is now published! I was asked by the STC-PMC to write a two-part article about the differences and similarities between American and British English. Of course, I think there’s much more to that simple debate, and this is a favorite topic of mine, so I gladly accepted the challenge. The bigger challenge was to try not to write an entire book!

To find the original article, see the January/February 2013 edition of the STC-PMC Newsletter here.

The article itself is below:


Is English an International Language?
Part 1

Is English an international language? Yes…and no. There is no question that English is a predominant global language. Half the world’s technical and scientific periodicals are written in English, as is eighty percent of the information stored in the world’s computers. There is no question that English is the most prominent language on the Internet, which has contributed to its continued spread around the world.

However, among English speakers, there can be huge differences, as if English speakers from different countries actually spoke different languages. The argument is often made that those who speak English do speak the same base language with just a few different spellings or colloquial idioms now and then. This is only partially true. While most of the world thinks of English in terms of American or British English, there’s also Canadian, Indian, Australian, New Zealander and South African versions of English to consider among others. Each version of English has further nuances that distinguish itself from another version. For the most part, an Australian can understand a South African, an American can understand a New Zealander, and someone from India can understand someone from the UK. But there will be moments that any one of those speakers could elicit a bewildered “EH?” amongst themselves in understanding.

Since most countries that speak English as the dominant language or a second language are former British colonies or Commonwealth countries, British English is usually the standard taught in schools. The exception to this, of course, is American English, which is usually taught in the United States and much of Central and South America as a second language. Even so, between American and British English, one would think that with a few small exceptions, they are essentially the same language, right?

What many Americans don’t realize is that British English has enough nuances that in several cases, we can’t understand our British brethren, and vice versa. For example, if a person came up to you in London and mentioned that he had a mate who sold so many crisps from his lorry that the crisps were falling out the boot and bonnet, would you know what that person meant? If you’ve watched a lot of BBC America or read enough books from the UK (as I have), then you might. An American would have to translate what the Londoner said, which was that he had a buddy who sold potato chips out of his truck, and the chips were falling out of the trunk and hood. Another example would be that if an American said that he would lose his pants over a financial deal, a Brit would misunderstand it to mean that the American would be losing his underwear over the deal, as “pants” is used to refer to underwear instead of “trousers” in the UK. Those are just two of many examples of how Brits and Americans don’t necessarily understand each other.

This divide is an important consideration in technical communications. Single-sourcing and translation are a large and continually growing component of technical communications. While software is becoming more intuitive about translating written content into different languages, it’s not flawless. Using a standard commonality in the language would be desired as a result.


See the March/April issue for Part 2.

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