English is global–or is it? I’m getting confused.

I apologize for not writing for quite a long time. I hadn’t realized how long it had been! I’ve been really busy all these weeks, deep in my professional work, my volunteer work, and working on me. It’s always tougher once the school year starts! My professional work is taking up a lot of energy these days, which is good only because it means that I’m deep into doing what I enjoy–working with content.

About a month ago, I went for Adobe CQ training. The company where I consult is using it to build and manage its new external website, and I’ve been included in the project! It’s a big step up for me, because I’ve been limited to internal sites until now. Having the chance to learn a new CMS, work on the external site, and work on a high-profile section of the external site is a big deal. The training was great, and all those who attended the training were rather excited to use Adobe CQ over the painfully clunky in-house CMS that we’ve been using (and will still have to use for internal sites for a while to come, so I’ll have to use both).

At the training, the trainer was from France, and we had another content strategist who was from the Brazil office. Both spoke fluent English. Over the course of the two days, I got to know both of them well (it was a small training group), and we talked about languages extensively. One of the interesting things about the company I work for is that it is a German company that is having its 150th anniversary this year, so you’d think that the official language of the company would be German. WRONG. Surprisingly enough, the official language of the company is English. When I found that out, I was surprised. And while there will be a German language website, as well as ones in Spanish, Portugese, and Chinese, in the breakdown of the new external websites, more areas would have an English website or translated English website option. Again, this surprised me a little–not that this is a bad thing. It works in my favor since my native language is English, after all.

In talking to the trainer from France, she said that the consultantcy she works for has her based at one of my company’s offices in Germany, so she usually commutes to Germany via a four-hour train trip, stays up there for four days, and then comes home on the weekends during this particular project. When she is in Germany, she speaks in English with the people in that German office. When she trained people on Adobe CQ in the German offices, she did her training in English. When she trained in Shanghai–her stop before the US–she did it in English. She said she took this job because it was in English, even though her native language is French, because it gave her an opportunity to use her second language and improve her fluency.

The fellow from Brazil was so fluent with an American accent that I almost thought he was an American of Brazilian descent who moved to South America. His English was impeccable, and he made so few pronunciation mistakes, that he reminded me of my husband’s accent, which is almost perfect, but there’s still a little something lingering there if you listen VERY carefully.

So, all this got me to thinking about conversations that have been going around in the last year or two about localization and the perception of English being the main language of the Internet, which are topics that have written about before. The impression I’ve been getting through many of the tech comm conversations has been that we should not assume that everyone is learning English, fluent in English even as a second language, and that English is not taking over as the predominant language it’s alluded to be. The message is that we need to neutralize the English we have because most of the world does not speak English, and this action will help with translation. That all makes sense to me. What makes things confusing to me is the implication that English should back off from trying to be the “international” language because perhaps it should be Chinese, or Spanish, or some other language that more populations speak, or that we need to concentrate more on making translation and localization work. I understand that implication as well, and generally I back that notion.

In the futuristic world of "Firefly", everyone was bilingual in English and Chinese, as the premise was that the US and China would end up being the superpowers that would take over the world and eventually ally themselves. Who knows? It could still happen.

In the futuristic world of “Firefly”, everyone was bilingual in English and Chinese, as the premise was that the US and China would end up being the superpowers that would take over the world and eventually ally themselves. Who knows? It could still happen.

Perhaps my company is a rare case in that the official language of the company is something other than what the native language of where it’s located is. I remember a year or two ago reading about a company in Japan that was making all its employees–down to the mailroom and custodial staff–learn English at the company. The company I work for has been around for 150 years in Germany, so you’d think that there would be a lot of bilingual people in order to work between two continents, but that it would not be Anglo-centric, but rather German-centric. Yet, that’s not the case. I don’t know why they decided that, but it really got me to thinking. If one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world, based out of Germany, has its official language as English, what does that really say? Is English really the predominant “international” language after all? Are there other global companies that are following suit? What does that mean for international English, or for that matter localization and translation efforts? Are we going to end up in a world like in Firefly where everyone spoke both English and Chinese, and no other languages?

I suppose it’s simply my own perception that sees it as confusing. On one hand, we’re being told to embrace other languages and appreciate the translation and localization process for the sake of understanding that English is not the predominant global language we think it is, and then on the other hand, we see proof that global corporations are shifting towards more English or predominant English usage. Did I read or encounter these companies as exceptions, or is this becoming the rule?

What are your thoughts? Post in the comments below, and let me know what you think.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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8 Responses to English is global–or is it? I’m getting confused.

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    It seems to me that English has become the language of business — and simultaneously we’re directing more and more of our content toward non-business people.

    So….Is English global? Yes. Is our audience broadening to encompass people who speak English as a second language — or not at all? Yes again.

  2. vswish says:

    Excellent post and interesting ideas, Danielle and Larry. The percentage of people on the planet who speak English is actually quite tiny. In fact, only 3.6% of people speak English as their first language. Of the seven billion people on earth, less than one billion (by some measures, less than 500 million) speak English at all. Yet, it appears to be the lowest common denominator in our business world.

    Danielle – could you ask what language is spoken internally at your company’s German office? I bet it is German. I have a feeling that English is used for meetings, training, conference calls, and the like when people from global offices participate. Maybe you could find out?

    I have some ideas as to why this is. Maybe I will write a blog post about it. 🙂

    • First of all, thanks Val, for posting this blog’s 400th comment! 😀

      I suspect that you are right that internally at the global corporate headquarters they do speak to each other in German when not in a conference, meeting, etc. with any English speaking people. I know being bilingual in German and English is a very high priority there. When I get the chance, I’ll certainly ask.

      It’s still curious though. For many years–and it still might be true–I remember hearing that the language of diplomacy was French, and that was the common language. I would also hear that German (and later, Japanese) was the language of technology and engineering. So, it makes one wonder…how did English become the language of business? Or is it? It used to be that the English was a predominant language because of the English colonial system. The same could be said for the French, Spanish, and to some extent German and Portugese. I can imagine that in this day and age, Arabic, Hindu and Chinese would be predominant languages. So how did English still end up on top, or is this an English-speaking world’s perception?

  3. Hi Danielle, this is a good discussion you’ve started. I’d say that English is indeed a requirement for most people doing international business. However, that’s not to say that our product content shouldn’t be localized!

    I lived in Taiwan for twelve years. I taught comms skills in local branches of multinationals for a while, the spent five years in the Taiwanese company with the biggest global brand — HTC. In these organizations, the situation was pretty much as Val said. Two qualifications to that, though. Firstly, there were quite a few native English speaking expats based in Taiwan. So English was typically used in meetings where they participated. (Though I have to say that the few with decent Mandarin comprehension skills found those skills to be very helpful).

    Secondly, and more importantly for this discussion, whenever speakers of other non-English languages were communicating with Mandarin speakers, English was still the language of choice. The world English phenomenon was in effect. I can well believe those who say that the English language may eventually change permanently to include some current “non-native” features which happen to be consistent across speakers of other languages.

    For product content (marketing / docs / training / support), it’s a different matter. Customers want information to be immediately, comfortably comprehensible. And in some cases, easy comprehension is a matter of health and safety, not just preference. Well localized content makes a huge difference to a company’s ability to compete internationally.

    By the way, if you want to read more about world English, I strongly recommend David Crystal’s writings (and I see he’s in a few video clips too).

    • I am a big fan of David Crystal! I have a video with him and his son that i keep forgetting to post here soon. I think your example is a good one. You can see where this perception of “Is English dominant or not?” comes from in my head. Ive heard Val speak numerous times in person about localisation issues, so im familiar with that part. Related to David Crystal, there’s the question of English variants emerging over time (think British-English vs. American-English, etc.) as well, and how that all plays into this as well.

      It all fascinates me. I think I missed my calling to be a linguist.

  4. @Joe Pairman: your contribution is EXCELLENT (as usual)!
    For your information, there are 24 official languages in the European Union. Question: how do you think they communicate?
    Some countries are bilingual (Belgium) or tri-lingual (Luxembourg) and often use English as communication language

    • Hi Marie-Louise, thanks for your comment and the insight! Do you know where we could find this list of the 24 official languages of the EU? It also makes me wonder if there is a few common languages used at the UN. I always though being a translator there would be cool when I was a kid, but i wonder if there has been a shift from certain languages to other languages over time, and if English was one of those languages.

  5. Europe and its 24 (official) languages:
    http://ec.europa.eu/languages/policy/language-policy/official_languages_en.htm
    with 1 750 linguists (for translation) and 600 interpreters.

    The DG (General Directorate) Translation within the European Commission:
    http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/translation/translating/officiallanguages/index_en.htm

    If you want to get an insight in excellent interpretation, attend one of those EU meetings. Interpreters are just EXCELLENT (and well-paid…) Forget about Google translate!

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