English as a Lingua Franca – what does this mean for me when learning Business English? - Part I
Globalization has made English the most common language shared by business professionals today. This is especially true when global partners, whose first language is not English, communicate together. They use what is now known as “English as a Lingua Franca” for their “language of business”. This is a different approach to learning “English as a Foreign Language” where non-native speakers learn English to communicate with English native speakers.
Here are just a few statistics provided by the British Council regarding the global status of English:
- English has a special status for 75 countries (each of which has more than 2 million people).
- 1 in 4 people in the world speak English to some level of competence; the other three quarters of the world’s population are showing increasing interest.
- over two thirds of the world's scientists read in English.
- three quarters of the world's mail is written in English.
- 80 % of the world's electronically stored information is in English.
As a result, English is rapidly changing because of how non-native speakers are influencing the language. There is no longer one “correct” brand of English as words, pronunciation and even grammar have been adapted in various “communities of practice” where the language is spoken. The focus is also shifting from the need to speak perfect American or British English to simply needing to be understood amidst a mixture of communication styles influenced by various cultural layers. Intelligibility is key!
For instance, when a German communicates with another non-native English speaker e.g. a Chinese person the message and context is more important than accuracy of grammar. The most significant consideration concerns the cultural communication style of these countries. A Germanic communication style includes a lot of facts requiring little context, whereas an Asian communication style is more vague requiring a greater understanding of the background context.
When multi-national groups get together, their different cultural backgrounds affect how they use English, often resulting in “code-switching”. Code switching occurs when both conversation partners are familiar with two or more languages and they switch between these languages in various ways e.g. a German word could be used in the middle of an English sentence:
“Let’s ask the Azubis to join the meeting”
Here the German term “Azubi” defines a specific educational path in Germany. In English it can mean either trainee or apprentice and is only partially similar in meaning. Therefore, in this situation it is important to understand and share the context when using this word.
Code switching can also be specific to a product or project and only understood within a shared context by this particular group and can have a valuable social aspect giving that group a shared identity.
So why is this important if you are learning English for your job?
Do you wish to speak exactly like a native speaker, which might be necessary, especially if your working environment mainly consists of native speakers and you are working with say, American, Australian or British nationals. If yes, then your focus is on acquiring English as a foreign language to function effectively in these respective countries with the locals. Alternatively, do you need to communicate effectively through English as a lingua franca and develop your ability to communicate with your global partners whose first language, like you, is not English?
This decision influences how you learn and what you want to learn.