Why English isn't yet the language of international business and why it's ridiculous to conduct business only using it

Monday, August 25, 2008

Major German-speaking communities.

Here's an article yesterday from Scotland on Sunday that says exactly what I've been saying for some time now, but with some other numbers to back it up that I haven't seen before. Read through the article as it demolishes the assumptions one by one that 1) English is the international language of business, and 2) Learning / using other languages doesn't help a business in its bottom line (making more money).

Here are two of them:
And in 2007 a study – Tower of Babel – carried out by Cardiff University suggested language failures in business represent the equivalent of a 7% hidden tax, and estimated rebalancing UK trade to become less dependant on doing business in English could add £21bn annually to the economy.
Our lack of language skills hides a fundamental problem with the balance of trade. Put simply, where English is the language of our customers, we sell more than we buy: in America we export £28.8m and import £22.8m; in the Republic of Ireland it's £12.2m and £9.9m; Australia is £2.29m out and £1.77m in.

But where the language of our customers is not English, we buy more than we are able to sell: with Germany it's £20.8m in exports but £33.6m in imports; in the Netherlands it's £13.5m v £16.6m; and in Italy, £8.6m compared with £11.4m.
So what's the reason why? It's really very simple: being able to use a language does not imply that one uses it all the time, or is always comfortable using it. Given that there's nothing more comfortable than one's native tongue, when a correspondence comes in using that language you can write off a quick reply, but in another language there's slightly less comfort which means it'll probably take longer to reply or perhaps even be slightly misunderstood. In short, it's generally just easier to conduct business in your own language, regardless of whether you're fluent in other languages or not.

It also shows that one's company has a certain amount of class in having employees that don't just use a single language. Sure, the German company you are corresponding with can write back to you in English, but before you establish a long-term relationship with them nobody knows whether your company is really what it says it is or whether it's just a group of hacks, but with a correspondence in fluent German at least they know that your company is one that has given a certain amount of thought to doing business with them.


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