I’m getting a libertarian sore throat reading Tsedal Neeley’s defense of English as Big Brother’s language.
Adopting a global language policy is not easy, and companies invariably stumble along the way. It’s radical, and it’s almost certain to meet with staunch resistance from employees. Many may feel at a disadvantage if their English isn’t as good as others’, team dynamics and performance can suffer, and national pride can get in the way. But to survive and thrive in a global economy, companies must overcome language barriers-and English will almost always be the common ground, at least for now.
The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide-that’s one in every four of us. There are close to 385 million native speakers in countries like the U.S. and Australia, about a billion fluent speakers in formerly colonized nations such as India and Nigeria, and millions of people around the world who’ve studied it as a second language. An estimated 565 million people use it on the internet.
The benefits of “Englishnization,” as Hiroshi [Mikitani], the CEO of Rakuten, calls it, are significant; however, relatively few companies have systematically implemented an English-language policy with sustained results. Through my research and work over the past decade with companies, I’ve developed an adoption framework to guide companies in their language efforts. There’s still a lot to learn, but success stories do exist. Adopters will find significant advantages.
It’s not that I dispute many of Neeley’s arguments. I actually find her typology of employee response helpful. I just wonder if offering the right incentives to employees and supervisors is not more useful. Isn’t compulsory English-language training at all levels, and in private and public sectors, of education enough? And, culturally, how can a company adjust to a particular business strategy when there’s such a overpowering language policy in effect?
The Economist identifies the pitfalls. Mikitani’s Rakutan “…identifies high-value employees and gives them extra training so they don’t go looking for another job. But it also threatens employees who don’t comply with demotion or dismissal.” Language policy in certain countries, like South Africa, India, and Poland, is conflictual.
The way to improve efficiency is not to mandate a linguistic-and intrinsically cultural-change upon workers and citizens. It is better, perhaps, to create the conditions that would lead to its adoption in any case. English has never needed an official academy to thrive. Nor has it needed official promotion (Britain and America have no official language) to grow. Like the weeds that seem always to reappear despite the best efforts of persnickety gardeners, English finds its way into other tongues and cultures.
Yet, I must heartily protest Korea as an exemplar of such a free market. If nothing else, read J.M. Beach’s Children Dying Inside: Education in South Korea.