Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Lingua Franca

I'm at a sales meeting this week with one of the product teams from work. Location-wise, this would be nothing exciting to say at previous companies I've worked for, but this company is much more global, and this particular sales team is based at one of our tungston carbide plants in a town outside of Lyon, France. So the sales meeting is being held at a hotel which was a private house build around 1820 on the foundations of an older fortified house, surrounded by rolling French countryside.

Last night I was sitting over after dinner drinks with a half dozen other attendees. Our group consisted of: 1 from Germany, 1 from Australia, 1 from Italy, 1 from India, 1 from China, 2 from France, and 3 from the US. We all spoke English, as it was the one language that all of us knew. It's also the company's official language. Perhaps that's not a surprise, given that a year ago it was purchased by a US investment company and now is headquartered in the US, but back when the company was owned by a Swedish mining conglomerate, the official company language was English as well. Even now, the majority of people working for the company are not American.

English, however, is no longer just a language for catering to Americans. It's become, in a phrase which is ironic as I write in France, the Lingua Franka of international business. When the Chinese sales manager and one of the French operations engineers talked to each other over a smoke break, they did so in English, because it was the one language they both spoke. Even among the French, Italians, and Germans, English was often their most fluent common language, and you'll overhear them speaking in it even when none of the Americans are present. Their own languages are exclusively reserved for when they're talking privately with people from their own countries.

You would think this provides Americans (and Australians and Indians -- and Brits if we had any) a distinct advantage. Not so, one of our French hosts informed us last night. To paraphrase roughly, he said, "You get up there, and you think you know everything because you speak English. And you speak too fast, and tell a joke no one understands, and use slang, and use three different words that mean the same thing just to show that you know them all. And you don't realize that half the room doesn't understand a thing you are saying. They don't want to hear your fancy English. They want to hear the English they understand."

And indeed, international business English is not necessarily spoken with any special love for the language or the culture, it's spoken because it's the most convenient for all involved.

So this afternoon when I gave my hour-long presentation on pricing strategy, I asked people to let me know if I was speaking too fast and I made a conscious effort to speak slowly and clearly. It went well.

I always feel a bit guilty at these kind of events that I'm not fluent in any other languages. I could stumble through some German if someone was really patient with me (and would stand a better chance at reading it) and I can manage a few phrases of French and Spanish, but my foreign language ability is below the English ability of anyone in attendance. One can get all down over American laziness about this, but of course, we don't have the motivation. When your language is the language of international business and travel, all you have to do is show up.


Banshee said...

Most Americans never leave the US for more than a few days, and never have the need to converse in a foreign language inside the US.

Most people in other countries either travel more, live closer to borders, or have significantly large numbers of people in their country who don't speak their native tongue. Diglossia (or more) is a must for them.

The big exception for Americans is participation in online communities or online gaming with conversation over headsets. But even then, most non-English speakers want to speak English with native speakers or even with each other.

Agnes said...

Oh well. I went to the US during my medical school training for a few months. Despite having learned English for several years and qualified it with a TOEFL exam, I had quite a few difficulties because of not knowing a particular word or knowing only the British English version of it, or even because of accent/pronunciation errors as well as not knowing the medical language acronyms and abbreviations Americans used. But because I spoke everyday English without much difficulty, people expected me to understand everything (like you said, using slang, talking fast, and using professional slang as well). I remember having listened to a lecture given by a resident doctor during a training session, and was quite surprised how clearly I understood his speech. Then I looked at his name badge, and realized he was another Hungarian like me - he spoke with the same Hungarian accent I had.