Is English the best language for business?

The Economist recently published an article discussing the rise of English as a business lingua franca. This is an issue that I’ve come across quite a bit in my own life as someone who’s lived and traveled quite a bit overseas. And not just in professional settings: as an English speaker I’ve received an education in English in countries where  it’s not even an official language and I have quite a few friends, mainly Brazil and the Nordic countries, who I only ever talk to in English despite the fact that it’s not their native language. And I’m certainly not alone in this. Ethnologue estimates that there are approximately 335 million native English speakers, but over 430 million non-native speakers. English is emerging as the predominant global language, and many people see an English education as an investment.

I don’t care that we all speak the same language natively. We’re holding this meeting in English and that’s final!

But for me, at least, the more interesting question is why? There are a lot of languages in the world, and, in theory at least, any of them could be enjoying the preference currently shown for English. I’m hardly alone in asking these questions. The Economist article I mentioned above suggests a few:

There are some obvious reasons why multinational companies want a lingua franca. Adopting English makes it easier to recruit global stars (including board members), reach global markets, assemble global production teams and integrate foreign acquisitions. Such steps are especially important to companies in Japan, where the population is shrinking. There are less obvious reasons too. Rakuten’s boss, Hiroshi Mikitani, argues that English promotes free thinking because it is free from the status distinctions which characterise Japanese and other Asian languages. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group notes that German firms get through their business much faster in English than in laborious German. English can provide a neutral language in a merger: when Germany’s Hoechst and France’s Rhône-Poulenc combined in 1999 to create Aventis, they decided it would be run in English, in part to avoid choosing between their respective languages.

Let’s break this down a little bit. There seem to be two main arguments for using English. One is social. Using English makes it easier to collaborate with other companies or company offices in other countries and, if no one is a native English speaker, helps avoid conflict by choosing a working language that doesn’t unfairly benefit one group. The argument is linguistic: there is some special quality to English that makes it more suited for business. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

The social arguments seem perfectly valid to me. English education is widely available and, in many countries, a required part of primary and secondary education. There is a staggering quantity of resources available to help master English. Lots of people speak English, with varying degrees of frequency. As a result, there’s a pretty high likelihood that, given a randomly-selected group of people, you’ll be able to get your point across in English. While it might be more fair to use a language that no-one speaks natively, like Latin or Esperanto, English has high saturation and an instructional infrastructure already in place. Further, the writing system is significantly more accessible and computer-friendly than Mandarin’s, which actually has more speakers than English. (Around 847 million, in case you were wondering.) All practical arguments for using English as an international business language.

Now let’s turn to the linguistic arguments. These are, sadly, much less reasonable. As I’ve mentioned before, people have a distressing tendency to make testable claims about language without actually testing them. And both of the claims above–that honorifics confine thinking and that English is “faster” than German– have already been investigated.

  • Honorifics do appear to have an effect on cognition, but it seems to be limited to a spatial domain, i.e. higher status honorifics are associated with “up” and lower ones with “down”. Beyond subtle priming, I find it incredibly unlikely that a rich honorific system has any effect on individual cognition. A social structure which is reflected in language use, however, might make people less willing to propose new things or offer criticism. But that’s hardly language-dependent. Which sounds more likely: “Your idea is horrible, sir,” or “Your idea is horrible, you ninny”?
    • TL;DR: It’s not the language, it’s the social structure the language operates in. 
  • While it is true that different languages have different informational density, the rate of informational transmission is actually quite steady. It appears that, as informational density increases, speech rate decreases. As a result, it looks like, regardless of the language, humans tend to convey information at a pretty stable rate. This finding is cross-modal, too. Even though signs take longer to produce than spoken words, they are more dense and so the rate of information flow in signed and spoken languages seems to be about the same. Which makes sense: there’s a limit to how quickly the human brain can process new information, so it makes sense that we’d produce information at about that rate.
    • TL;DR: All languages convey information at pretty much the same rate. If there’s any difference in the amount of time meetings take, it’s more likely because people are using a language they’re less comfortable in (i.e. English). 

In conclusion, it very well may be the case that English is currently the best language to conduct business in. But that’s because of language-external social factors, not anything inherent about the language itself.


Are television and mass media destroying regional accents?

One of the occupational hazards of linguistics is that you are often presented with spurious claims about language that are relatively easy to quantifiably disprove. I think this is probably partly due to the fact that there are multiple definitions of ‘linguist. As a result, people tend to equate mastery of a language with explicit knowledge of it’s workings. Which, on the one hand, is reasonable. If you know French, the idea is that you know how to speak French, but also how it works. And, in general, that isn’t the case. Partly because most language instruction is light on discussions of grammatical structures–reasonably so; I personally find inductive grammar instruction significantly more helpful, though the research is mixed–and partly because, frankly, there’s a lot that even linguists don’t know about how grammar works. Language is incredibly complex, and we’ve only begun to explore and map out that complexity. But there are a few things we are reasonably certain we know. And one of those is that your media consumption does not “erase” your regional dialect [pdf]. The premise is flawed enough that it begins to collapse under it’s own weight almost immediately. Even the most dedicated American fans of Dr. Who or Downton Abby or Sherlock don’t slowly develop British accents.

Christopher Eccleston Thor 2 cropped
Lots of planets have a North with a distinct accent that is not being destroyed by mass media.
So why is this myth so persistent? I think that the most likely answer is that it is easy to mischaracterize what we see on television and to misinterpret what it means. Standard American English (SAE), what newscasters tend to use, is a dialect. It’s not just a certain set of vowels but an entire, internally consistent grammatical system.  (Failing to recognize that dialects are more than just adding a couple of really noticeable sounds or grammatical structures is why some actors fail so badly at trying to portray a dialect they don’t use regularly.) And not only  is it a dialect, it’s a very prestigious dialect. Not only newscasters make use of it, but so do political figures, celebrities, and pretty much anyone who has a lot of social status. From a linguistic perspective, SAE is no better or worse than any other dialect. From a social perspective, however, SAE has more social capital than most other dialects. That means that being able to speak it, and speak it well, can give you opportunities that you might not otherwise have had access to. For example, speakers of Southern American English are often characterized as less intelligent and educated. And those speakers are very aware of that fact, as illustrated in this excrpt from the truely excellent PBS series Do You Speak American:


Do you think northern people think southerners are stupid because of the way they talk?


Yes I think so and I think Southerners really don’t care that Northern people think that eh. You know I mean some of the, the most intelligent people I’ve ever known talk like I do. In fact I used to do a joke about that, about you know the Southern accent, I said nobody wants to hear their brain surgeon say, ‘Al’ight now what we’re gonna do is, saw the top of your head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can’t find that dad burn clot.’

So we have pressure from both sides: there are intrinsic social rewards for speaking SAE, and also social consequences for speaking other dialects. There are also plenty of linguistic role-models available through the media, from many different backgrounds, all using SAE. If you consider these facts alone it seems pretty easy to draw the conclusion that regional dialects in America are slowly being replaced by a prestigious, homogeneous dialect.

Except that’s not what’s happening at all. Some regional dialects of American English are actually becoming more, rather than less, prominent. On the surface, this seems completely contradictory. So what’s driving this process, since it seems to be contradicting general societal pressure? The answer is that there are two sorts of pressure. One, the pressure from media, is to adopt the formal, standard style. The other, the pressure from family, friends and peers, is to retain and use features that mark you as part of your social network. Giles, Taylor and Bourhis showed that identification with a certain social group–in their case Welsh identity–encourages and exaggerates Welsh features. And being exposed to a standard dialect that is presented as being in opposition to a local dialect will actually increase that effect. Social identity is constructed through opposition to other social groups. To draw an example from American politics, many Democrats define themselves as “not Republicans” and as in opposition to various facets of “Republican-ness”. And vice versa.

Now, the really interesting thing is this: television can have an effect on speaker’s dialectal features But that effect tends to be away from, rather than towards, the standard. For example, some Glaswegian English speakers have begun to adopt features of Cockney English based on their personal affiliation with the  show EastendersIn light of what I discussed above, this makes sense. Those speakers who had adopted the features are of a similar social and socio-economic status as the characters in Eastenders. Furthermore, their social networks value the characters who are shown using those features, even though they are not standard. (British English places a much higher value on certain sounds and sound systems as standard. In America, even speakers with very different sound systems, e.g. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, can still be considered standard.) Again, we see retention and re-invigoration of features that are not standard through a construction of opposition. In other words, people choose how they want to sound based on who they want to be seen as. And while, for some people, this means moving towards using more SAE, in others it means moving away from the standard.

One final note: Another factor which I think contributes to the idea that television is destroying accents is the odd idea that we all only have one dialect, and that it’s possible to “lose” it. This is patently untrue. Many people (myself included) have command of more than one dialect and can switch between them when it’s socially appropriate, or blend features from them for a particular rhetorical effect. And that includes people who generally use SAE. Oprah, for example, will often incorporate more features of African American English when speaking to an African American guest.  The bottom line is that television and mass media can be a force for linguistic change, but they’re hardly the great homogonizier that it is often claimed they are.

For other things I’ve written about accents and dialects, I’d recommend:

  1. Why do people  have accents? 
  2. Ask vs. Aks
  3. Coke vs. Soda vs. Pop

Why does loud music hurt your hearing?

There was recently an excellent article by the BBC about the results of a survey put out by the non-profit organization Action on Hearing Loss. The survey showed that most British adults are taking dangerous risks with their hearing: almost a third played music above the recommended volume and a full two-thirds left noisy venues with ringing in their ears. It may seem harmless to enjoy noisy concerts, but it can and does irrecoverably damage your hearing. But how, exactly, does it do that? And how loud can you listen to music without being at risk?

Speakers lroad
Turn it up! Just… not too loud, ok?
Let’s start with the second question. You’re at risk of hearing loss if you subject yourself to sounds above 85 decibels. For reference, that’s about as loud as a food processor or blender, and most music players will warn if you try to play music much louder than that. They will, however, sometimes play music up to 110 dB, which is roughly the equivalent of someone starting a chainsaw in your ear and verges on painful. And that is absolutely loud enough to damage your hearing.

Hearing damage is permanent and progressive. Inside your inner ear are tiny, hair-shaped cells. These sway back and forth as the fluid of your inner ear is compressed by sound-waves. It’s a bit like seaweed being pulled back and forth by waves, but on a smaller scale and much, much faster. As these hair cells brush back and forth they create and transmit electrical impulses that are sent to the brain and interpreted as sound. The most delicate part of this process is those tiny hair cells. They’re very sensitive. Which is good, because it means that we’re able to detect noise well, but also bad, because they’re very easy to damage. In fish and birds, that damage can heal over time. In mammals, it can not. Once your hair cells are damaged, they can no longer transmit sound and you lose that part of the signal permanently. There’s a certain amount of unavoidable wear and tear on the system. Even if you do avoid loud noises, you’re still slowly losing parts of your hearing as you and your hair cells age, especially in the upper frequencies. But loud music will accelerate that process drastically. Listen to loud enough music long enough and it will slowly take away at your ability to hear it. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid loud environments altogether. As with all things, moderation is key. One noisy concert won’t leave you hard of hearing. (In fact, your body has limited defence mechanisms for sustained loud noises, including temporarily shifting the bones of your inner ear so that less acoustic energy is transmitted.) The best things you can do for your ears are to avoid exposure to very loud sounds and, if you have to be in a noisy environment, wear protection. It’s also possible that magnesium supplements might help to reduce the damage to the auditory system, but when it comes to protecting your hearing, the best treatment is prevention.