New Lingua Franca for International Business?

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Lingua Franca, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is “a common or commercial” language “among people of diverse” languages.

With that definition in mind, what is the current international business Lingua Franca? English. English is the world’s commercial language. That is only natural, right? Wrong.

With just some 350 million native speakers, the success and status of English as the world’s business Lingua Franca is impressive. Throw in the fact that there are two other languages with a higher number of native speakers, namely, Mandarin with 1.2 billion native speakers and Spanish with 400 million native speakers.

How did the English language attain such success? Well, it is spoken of in every part of the world. In fact, today 80% of English interactions in the world are carried out by non-native English speakers.[1] Through Colonialism and Imperialism, the British took their culture and language round the world, from India to Africa to North America. They succeeded in establishing their language around the globe.

And with the establishment of the United States of America and the United Kingdom as world superpowers, it is only logical they came to dictate the modus operandi of world’s affairs including business language. Should the language change?

lingua franca

There has been a move to change the Lingua Franca of the international business world. Proponents of this move have submitted that the United States and the United Kingdom cannot lay claim to being the supreme economic superpower, with the emergence of Russia and China.

They argue that there should be at least a substitute Lingua Franca or a second choice if you like. They have also pointed to the fact that English is not even among the top two most spoken languages by native speakers in the world.

It is true that China and Russia have emerged as major players in the world economy and that English is not the most spoken language by native speakers, but are these reasons sufficient for a change? Let us consider three factors that will have to be outweighed for a change in the Lingua Franca to occur.

Language structure – There is a reason 80% of the interactions in the English language are carried out by non-native speakers. It is not difficult to learn. The structure and rules of the language are not complicated.

More people have learnt to speak the language as a second language than any other language in the world. In some cases (and it is becoming a norm), most children with non-native English speaking parents have picked English as their first language. It is their best and most fluent language.

They have to learn their mother tongue as a second language. That is an indication of the English language growing stronger among future generations. Many foreign languages like Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French have similarities regarding rules and structure making it easy for people who speak these languages to learn the English language.

Contrast this with say, Mandarin. Mandarin has been ranked by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) as being difficult to learn. This is due to it being a tonal language with pictograms. Most speakers of Mandarin are native speakers as against the 80% non-native speakers.

Economic Strength – A second factor is the fact that the United States is still the pacesetter in business as well as every other aspect. It is not just a major player, but the main player in world affairs, even dictating the activities of “independent international organisations”. Until that change, English will continue to be the dominant language in the world. And let us face it, that happening is the definition of the word “unlikely”.

Simply put, in the business world, English is the primary currency of interaction and transaction, both online and offline. And with the continuous expansion of the digital economy, English-based online businesses that are equally fast, responsive and hosted on reliable platforms such as Bluehost or Umbrellar Cloud still have the edge.

Soft Power Allure – The final reason we will consider is the soft power allure. The US and UK hold a great appeal for many. The pervasive culture and entertainment industry contribute to the projection of the US as the country every country wants to emulate. In many quarters, it is seen as the standard or model.

It continues to influence people’s thinking, making them willing to dump their culture, country, and language for the ‘better life’. That just keeps feeding the status of both the country and all it embodies on the international scene.

The economies of other countries of the world may grow and rival the US and UK, but it will take something colossal to upstage these economies and the structure they already have in place- including the language in which business is conducted. It is unimaginable they will become irrelevant in world’s affairs.

It is unimaginable that these giant economies will let that happen. If anything, they are tightening their grip at the top. A structure has been firmly established and until the powers behind this structure are supplanted, the structure remains.

English as the Lingua Franca continues to be the modus operandi of the international business scene. If and when a change is in the offing, here is where you will hear it first.

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James Cummings

James Cummings is an Occupational Psychologist and serial entrepreneur. He runs Daily Posts Copywriting and has worked on numerous B2B campaigns for customers around the world.