Breaking the language barrier

By Rupert Morris

The British are notoriously bad at speaking languages. Thank goodness English is the global language of business, so we can probably muddle through.

Or can we? Even among fellow English-speakers, we can easily come unstuck. I was talking to a chap in a bar in Los Angeles a few years ago, and having bought him a drink I felt emboldened to ask for one of his cigarettes. Would he mind awfully, I asked, if I were to bum a fag off him? He nearly thumped me on the spot.

In non-English-speaking countries, where each may speak a word or two of the other’s language, we often attempt to communicate in gross-oversimplifications. The results can be catastrophic. My late father-in-law once went into an electrical shop in Spain in search of an adapter that would enable him to plug his power-drill into the wall. When he attempted, in all innocence, to explain to the pretty girl behind the counter that “my English thing is too big for your Spanish hole,” she fled hurriedly in search of her father – and who could blame her?

No wonder people have been trying for centuries to find a language we can all understand. At least they have been since 1887 when Dr L.L. Zamenhof launched Esperanto. Esperanto is drawn largely from Romance languages, notably French; it has only 16 grammatical rules and is at least five or six times as easy to learn as English or Mandarin Chinese – which is actually the most widely-spoken language in the world. It has perhaps two million speakers, putting it on a par with Lithuanian or Hebrew. Within the past 10 years the economist Reinhard Selten has published two books on game theory in Esperanto.

Yet this brave and harmless effort to spread international understanding has met with little but contempt and persecution throughout its existence. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Stalin did not want his countrymen communicating with foreigners, and in the 1930s had a number of Esperanto speakers shot. In other totalitarian countries, Esperanto-speakers were similarly persecuted. More revealing, however, has been the unwillingness of European nations to give Esperanto a chance. While the British have been content to kill it with scorn, the French actually passed a law to prevent it being taught in schools. But then their cultural isolationism is well known. Only this year, when Jean-Marie Messier, the head of Vivendi Universal, had the temerity to suggest that “the franco-French cultural exception is dead”, he was howled down not only by the culture minister but by prime minister Lionel Jospin himself. All he seemed to be saying was that France should allow other cultural influences in just as it proudly exports the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Asterix the Gaul. He was calling for cultural free trade, in fact.

This kind of chauvinism is not peculiar to the French, and it goes way beyond language. Remember how we recently celebrated the exploits of Britain’s “metric martyrs”, that clapped-out bunch of Europhobes who could only measure freedom in pints and inches? As for the United States, it can safely be said that the overwhelming majority of Americans abroad simply believe that everyone wants Levi’s jeans, McDonalds’ burgers and US dollars and that anyone who doesn’t know how to make a peanut-butter sandwich is either mad or pitiable.

Most of us are guilty of some degree of chauvinism or ignorance along these lines. But clinging to the apron-strings of nationalism does nothing for our ability to communicate. And in the modern world, we need to communicate with foreigners more and more.

It is hard to imagine that any leading management strategist would dissent from the view put forward in Accenture’s latest pamphlet, Business in a Fragile World, that as corporate boundaries become more permeable and business pressures become more global, we need to collaborate with an ever-wider range of stakeholders and potential stakeholders, not least in the developing world. When the likes of Unilever, BP and Citibank do business in Africa, China and India, and win plaudits for their contributions to sustainable development, it is not because they behave altruistically, but because they have the imagination to explore ways of opening up new markets. Their work requires combining global reach with local sensitivity. It means doing your homework on cultures very different from your own.

HSBC has chosen to tackle the issue in its current advertising campaign, highlighting the outrage caused by inappropriately crossed legs in Thailand or the outthrust palm of the hand in Greece, and the ways in which various common gestures are open to radically different interpretations in different countries. It certainly took me a long time to get used to the Indian refusal to use the left hand for anything other than, well, actions best conducted out of the public gaze. And anyone wishing to do business with the Japanese would be well advised to read one of the many books on the subject. In Japan, the rituals of business courtship make most western notions of etiquette look decidedly sketchy.

So what can we do, language-wise? Clearly, we can’t be expected to learn a foreign language whenever we want to do business abroad – although mastering the odd phrase of greeting is always a good idea. And Esperanto, despite the blameless intentions of its founders, is not the answer. Humankind is just too fond of its own languages, with their own nuances, to allow an invented tongue, with its deliberate compromises, approximations and simplifications, to take over international discourse. Smoothing out the edges, we feel, robs us of our individuality. Indeed, linguists are now convinced that a far greater threat to the future of humanity than occasional linguistic misunderstandings is the disappearance of many of the world’s oldest and most precious languages. The ubiquity of television and the Internet means that if you want to be successful, you need to understand English. In many of the remoter regions of the world, where the drive to the cities has left communities increasingly isolated, new generations feel that their one hope of success and prosperity is to master that amorphous brand of English that used to be known as “mid-Atlantic”. As a result, a growing number are unable to speak the language of their ancestors.

This is certainly a serious cause of concern, for every language that has evolved in response to its natural environment is capable of enlightening us about our world – and every language that disappears diminishes us to some degree. But it does not alter the inescapable fact that for the foreseeable future, English is indeed the global language of business. This, in turn, makes it all the more important that we use the language to the best of our ability, speaking and writing it in a way that can be understood by any reasonably conscientious non-native speaker who is willing to do the necessary homework.

So how can we improve our use of English? The answer is certainly not to pooh-pooh the latest vocabulary simply because it offends English traditionalists. The made-up word “wannabee” is wonderfully expressive, as are countless other American conversational staples like “number-cruncher” and “channel-hopping”. Turning “access” from a noun into a verb has proved to be very useful. Otherwise we would have to “gain access to” information, using three words where one now suffices. And so what if people increasingly prefer to place the accent on the first syllable of “research” when received English pronunciation places it on the second? Personally, I find it hard to accept the American verbal phrases “meet up with” or “impact on” when single words like “meet” and “affect” say exactly the same. But such stylistic preferences can be left to personal choice. Meaning is scarcely threatened, nor is the integrity of the language.

There is something pernicious, however, about the kind of management-speak that compulsively adds words without adding meaning, purely in order to impress. When we insert superfluous polysyllables into our discourse, claiming to offer proactive, customer-facing holistic solutions and timely process-driven synergies that actually amount to very little, we are guilty of language abuse.

Why, for instance, have we given up learning lessons? Nowadays, it seems, we are required to “capture key learnings” instead. We gain nothing by introducing the pseudo-military word “capture”, inserting the ubiquitous adjective “key” and turning the present participle of “learn” into a noun. Nothing, that is, except to make the simple more complicated.

And why must we insert the redundant phrase “going forward” into every other sentence? Are we so afraid of stalling?

In a globalised business world, we should be proud to speak English, but respectful of our audience at the same time. Warren Buffett says that whenever he writes Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, he asks himself if his two sisters, Doris and Bertie, intelligent but not expert readers, would understand. If they would, then he has made himself clear. All we have to do is to think of Doris and Bertie, and imagine that they are not native English-speakers. If we honestly reckon that they will still understand us, then we have done our primary duty to our readers. We have shown common courtesy, and that works in any language.