English as the Lingua Franca: Is Knowing English Enough to Succeed in Business?

English is the lingua franca – i.e., the common language often spoken when people of mixed native languages gather.

This might make native English speakers consider avoiding learning another language and falling back on their English competency.

While communication may no longer be the most important part of learning another language (see last week’s post), there are many reasons you should.

Here are a few…

The Lingua Franca Shifts

The ancient powers of Babylonia, Persia, and Assyria all spoke Aramaic.

The Hellenistic empire spoke Greek.

The Romans? They spoke Latin and so did other cultures outside their own, in order to communicate in a common language with the empirical power.

The Spanish and French languages have also held their own as the lingua franca during their empirical reigns.

This is why in many former colonies, Portuguese, French, and English often remain as official languages.

French was even the primary language in Britain for three centuries, with the motto, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), on the U.K.’s royal coat of arms still written in French.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world was learning Russian as a second language. The fall was a victory for the English language, as this shifted the paradigm.

English was only adopted as the unofficial universal language of business in the last century, which goes to show how this trend can – and, likely, will – naturally shift.

Considering countries like China are becoming important trading partners, making Mandarin a key language to learn, English may not continue to hold this position as universal language for long.

“English Light”

In his book, Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, Edward Trimnell provides another reason for broadening your linguistic skills.

He notes that “global English” is usually “English light,” meaning that oftentimes non-native speakers are minimally fluent and have not mastered the nuances of the language.

In order to negotiate with and sell to those who speak “English light,” language skills of your own are required.

The transition of global companies to communicating in various languages is prevalent in the shift of English web content over the years.

While in the late nineties, 90 percent of online content was in English, this has dropped to 25.9 percent as of 2020.

According to Trimnell, this is partially due to the mantra, “Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…” which is why international company websites are now available in dozens of languages.

Considering what we discussed with the Daewoo CEO last week, selling in a foreign language in a foreign market is clearly important, not only in regards to communication but also in demonstrating respect. 

The bottom line: the times are a’changing, and the skill of language learning should not be underestimated.

How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.

The Science Behind Learning a Second Language

Learning language, learning religion, and learning history are important to taking action in your own cultural integration. Of the three, learning language often requires the most drive and focus.

But when you’re a child, you seem to soak up language like a sponge. You don’t need that drive and focus to learn it.

The adult memory – or the lack thereof – is often blamed for this disparity. And the truth is the ability to retain information slows with age. Moreover, different languages have different sounds, which are easier to master at a young age, as the mouth is still forming and speech still developing.

However, though it’s a smart idea to become bilingual as a child, some of us don’t have that opportunity. That doesn’t mean that, as adults, we should pass off language learning as “too difficult.” Instead, we must take a leaf out of the child’s playbook and learn a language like children do.

Learning as a Child

An article published by Patricia K. Kuhl in the journal, Mind Brain Education, entitled “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education,” states that language learning in children is a highly social activity.

“There is evidence that children’s early mastery of language requires learning in a social context,” Kuhl writes. “Research shows that young children rely on what has been called ‘statistical learning,’ a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture. However, new data also indicate that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computations skills to learn from exposure to language.”

Believe it or not, this is the same thing adults need in order to learn a language quickly: a social setting and social interaction. Even more so, we need the confidence that a child does and the willingness to make mistakes.

This is the science behind learning a second language.

Do these rules really apply to adults, as well?

Learning as an Adult

Meet Benny, the Irish polygot.

He’s the author of Fluent in 3 Months and says that although he’s not inherited the so-called “language gene” and isn’t particularly gifted with languages, he’s been able to become fluent in seven languages, simply by having the confidence to speak.

Why?

Benny met a man in Spain who changed his life. In his own words: “He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

This is actually the secret to learning anything. Think about it: whether it was riding your bike, mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, weren’t you willing enough to just give it a go, even if you weren’t that confident in your abilities to begin with?

The self-described “fun-loving Irish guy and full-time globe trotter” has taught thousands of language learners his approach to becoming competent in a language quickly.

“My mission in life is giving people permission to make mistakes,” he says on his site. “The more mistakes you make, the faster you become a confident language learner.”

Science and practical application turn up the same results. The equation to language learning, whether young or old, is as simple as confidence + speaking + making mistakes = learning through exposure.

This month, my posts will offer resources, language learning sites, and advice on how to plug into this equation and get rolling on a new language.