Sunday, December 23, 2007

Speak You Global?

I’ve always liked the holiday cards that say, “Joy and Peace,” or “Season’s Greetings” in different languages -- Spanish, French, German, Italian, and maybe Greek, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese. And English – of course. The different words and expressions seem at once textbook-familiar but culturally exotic, even when the words are written in green and red ink and fashioned into the shape of a Christmas tree.

But I wonder how exotic the English “Season’s Greetings” seems to foreign speakers – my guess is: not very. According to a recent article in the Financial Times (Nov. 9, “Whose Language?”), roughly 1.5 billion people around the world speak English – that is, one-quarter of the world’s population -- and two-thirds of that number speak it as a foreign language and speak it reasonably well, according to linguist David Crystal.

For decades now, people from Mexico to Mongolia have been learning English as a foreign language – and not as some academic exercise (as is the case here in the U.S. with foreign languages), but as a survival tool; in fact, the Financial Times article calls English “the key to prosperity.” As the language of international business and commerce, English enables Nigerians to speak to Norwegians, Spaniards to Slovenians, and Uruguayans to Uzbekistanis. It lets street sellers in Cairo, Santiago, and New York hawk their wares and haggle with tourists; meanwhile, in sleek, glassy office buildings, English lets investment bankers sell stocks and equity derivatives by conference call to clients in Brazil, France, and Singapore.

Not knowing English limits your ability to thrive outside your village or country; knowing English brings possibility, opportunity – and the ability to fix your computer over the phone with a tech support operator in India. British linguist David Graddol says that the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. “Indeed,” the Financial Times quotes Graddol, “many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English speakers present.”

This is not because foreign English speakers automatically understand each others’ accents: if one person has learned American English and the other British, that sometimes presents complications. In fact, a French woman living here in New York arrived speaking and understanding British English – but now, after ten years of concentrating on American English, she has discovered, to her great chagrin, that she no longer understands Hugh Grant movies.

Still, overall, foreigners have an easier time of it speaking English with other foreigners, particularly in business situations. Why?

What we’ve got here – particularly when work involves colleagues from different countries – is not standard English, the Financial Times says, but something called Global English. This form of English is different from everyday, conversational, idiomatic-expression-filled English of native speakers; instead, Global English uses words and terms that are generally recognized by those foreign speakers present; it forgives slight grammatical errors; and it is aimed at making sure everyone understands what is being said – not necessarily how grammatically perfectly they say it.

Linguist David Graddol says that “even the most competent foreign speaker sometimes leaves the ‘s’ off the third-person singular,” but that no real loss in meaning comes from saying, for example, “he come,” instead of “he comes.”
In a meeting filled with non-native English speakers, such a “variation” would be perfectly acceptable in Global English.

At the same time, the Financial Times says, “Native (English) speakers are often poor at ensuring that they are understood in international discussions,” due to their use of idiomatic expressions and slang: “Let’s knock this deal out of the ball park!” for example, could easily leave a few foreign colleagues in the dark.

I shared the Financial Times article with some of my corporate English language students (from Switzerland, China, France, and Latin America), and they agreed that meetings would be easier if the native-English speakers spoke more slowly and used regular terms and vocabulary.

One student, an Internet Technology manager from Argentina, said that in conference calls and at big meetings, “It is not hard to understand the foreign people, because they don’t know so many words and they also speak slowly,” she said. “But the Americans and British speak always too fast and use expressions I don’t know -- And then I get more nervous when it is my turn to speak.”

But English among foreigners also seems to vary according to whether the audience is mixed nationalities – or not. A Spanish-speaking lawyer from Chile said she was recently in a room with French lawyers speaking English with each other: “I could not understand any word,” she said. “They spoke English fast and in a French sort of way that is still English but English that only they understand.”

Meanwhile, a Colombian graphic designer stood up for the native English speakers in meetings: she said that native speakers of English at least have clear accents, good grammar and – most importantly to her -- get to the point faster. “Latin speakers,” she added, whether from South America or Europe, “love to talk, love to hear themselves speak.” This can be fine on their home turf and in their native languages, she said, “but in any meeting here that is in English, to listen to them (with their difficult accents and bad grammar), well, it is really hard.”

Even so, native English speakers should at least be aware of the potential for misunderstandings -- and vice-versa: A Japanese bond trader I once worked with recalled the time she had just joined a new office team to work on their project. “What do you want to get out of this project?” her team leader asked at their first group meeting. Not realizing the team leader was asking what she wanted to learn from the experience, the Japanese woman said, “I thought he was telling me to get out of the project. I almost left the room!”

As foreigners learn English, they might not realize when their skills are sub-par – with potentially disastrous results. Take the hilarious ad for Berlitz Language School found on YouTube: in the ad, a young, new-to-the-job German Coast Guard officer is alone at the radar panel when a British-accented voice calls over the radio: “May-day, may-day! We are sinking! We are sinking!” The officer, unsure how to react, leans into the microphone and responds in heavily accented English, “Siss is zeh German Coast Guard. What are you … sinking about?” (

Sometimes non-native speakers pick up English terms for things by hearing them from Anglo-American friends or colleagues; they then take these terms back to main headquarters -- only a bit altered. This would explain how our term, “touchy-feely,” meaning “ultra-sensitive,” arrived at a Zurich office as “touch-me, feel-me” – currently the large, corporate office’s name for long, in-depth meetings.

In another instance, a Belgian woman, describing her large, New York apartment, added that she loved her “walking closet.”

Other mistakes that non-native speakers make are things like mixing up verb tenses (“I have done not my homework last night.”); confusing “make” and “do” (“Sorry – I did a mistake!”); and translating word-for-word from their own language (“Finally, I must work all the day” – instead of, “In the end, I had to work the whole day.”) Pronunciation, word order, prepositions, and where-the-accent- falls-on-words are all killers too, because they are so irregular. Added trivia: The two words most often mispronounced and hardest to correct, in my book, are “women” (usually said as “two womans” or even “two womens”) and “clothes” (usually pronounced with two syllables as “clo-thes.”)

Such “differences” could some day become standard Global English -- if Global ever becomes a standard language. English itself developed over 500 years, as various foreign newcomers, merchants, and traders came to England and had to communicate with the locals. Over time, this meant pitching genders, the formal “you,” noun-adjective agreements, inflections, adopting easy and regular forms of plurals and past tenses, and all kinds of things that must have shaken each older generation’s foundations. (“Kids these days!” an old, Anglo-Saxon peasant might have said. “I work with my ‘Hande’ but my sons say they work with their ‘hands.’”) Global English could possibly develop in a similar way – except that English developed on one small island, where as Global English is developing all over the globe, making a standard Global English less certain.

In any case, to remedy the native/non-native language barrier in business communication, in 2005, a Frenchman and retired IBM vice president named Jean-Paul Nerriere invented a language tool that he called, “Globish;” this was not a language, he explained, but a simplified and codified version of English to be used at international business meetings. In his book, “Don’t Speak English -- Parlez Globish,” he explains how to learn and use this linguistic tool. Now two years later, Globish does not seem to have caught on, but Nerriere’s point is well taken: native English speakers in multinational business situations should hold back on the slang, long-winded jokes, and sports metaphors -- especially for games not commonly played overseas.

Americans and Anglos with thick regional accents are especially hard for foreign-speakers. On the other hand, good “standard” American accents are appreciated more than I once realized. For example, a young French student and his mother recently enjoyed the 1997 movie, “You’ve Got Mail;” though I had thought they would like the film for the scenes of the Upper West Side, their first comment was, “Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were so easy to understand!”

What’s happening with English, in short, is that Global English is creating a new strand of the language, a new international strand. Global English and standard English are at a certain crossroads: on one hand, the “key to prosperity” still lies in speaking as much like native English speakers as possible. Global English may allow for mistakes, but ultimately, those who speak it strive for standard English perfection.

On the other hand, with non-native speakers of English being a new and growing linguistic majority, native English speakers just might have to make some adjustments if we want to be understood – and hold onto that slippery key to prosperity.

With that, allow me to be the first to wish you “Have a Happy Holiday” in Global English: “Happy Vacations!”

For those who prefer the more traditional multi-language seasonal greetings, you may take your pick: Cheers! (English) Feliz Navidad! (Spanish) Nollaig Shona Duit! (Irish) Meuilleurs Voeux! (French) S Rozhdestvom! (Russian) Glædelig jul (Danish) and Bom Ano Novo (Portuguese), Gelukkig NieuwJaar! (Dutch), Νέο Ετος (Greek), and ལོགསར་ལ་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་། (Tibetan).

(P.S. If you want to know how to say the above in Breton, Comanche, Galician, or even Kurdish, then check out this amazing site: )