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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┬ámy 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.

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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.