Last weekend, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting Denmark’s great capital, Copenhagen. Though I’d passed through 10 or so years ago on a stag party – surely, in their complete indifference to anything approaching local culture, the sybaritic equivalent of a business trip – this trip felt more like the real deal. The impeccably stylish design! The peerless hospitality! The flawless, ubiquitous and practically accent-free English!
But hang on a second. Wasn’t Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourgish president of the European Commission, telling us just last week that English was “slowly but surely losing its importance in Europe”? If so, shouldn’t I have encountered some French-speaking bilingual youths, confounded by my Scots-tinged babble? Shouldn’t there have been some shoddily misspelled signs, using awkwardly inappropriate names?
Given the tone of recent exchanges between the UK and the EU, it’s safe to assume that Mr Juncker was being more than a little mischievous. But the pre-eminent Eurocrat provoked quite a reaction in the UK media, suggesting that, as with all the most cutting put-downs, his words may contain a kernel of truth. But do they?
Both anecdotally and statistically, the answer would appear to be a resounding “no”. Following a recent chambers of commerce event, one of my colleagues related a story of a Swiss German banker who said that all his fellow German speakers use English to speak to Swiss French, because “the French are so fussy about how their language is spoken”.
In Finland, English-language TV is neither dubbed nor subtitled, because the expense of doing so simply can’t be justified for such a population so small and fluent in English. Meanwhile, EU figures last year show that when it comes to a second language, more than 94% of EU high-school students choose to study English.
But what if Juncker had the right point, but just the wrong language? After all, China has stolen a march on practically every sector across industry, technology, sport and culture – it only makes sense that language would be next, no?
But while it is unquestionable that a knowledge of Chinese will stand businesspeople in good stead – not least if they’re dealing frequently with Chinese companies – the chances of the world’s pre-eminent first language becoming its most widely spoken are, for a variety of reasons, very slim.
‘The use of language connotes so much more than just a tool for being understood’
For now, it seems, the prospects of English being displaced as the lingua franca of politics, science, technology and commerce are next to non-existent. But as the FT so eloquently argued, the use of language connotes so much more than just a tool for being understood. Inherent in any language is a set of assumptions, conventions and deeply ingrained habits that can sit uneasily with non-native speakers, especially in the realm of business and finance.
In our own work, which covers markets across the world, the differences in emphasis, style and nuance can be vast, even in communications all ostensibly written in the same language (English).
Curiously, American audiences can prefer greater formality (I’ve and wasn’t, for instance, are frequently off-limits) than Brits when it comes to investment communications, while precepts underpinning Asian languages can be so different from those in English that any attempt to render them literally can resemble interpretive verse.
As in any form of communication, then, an awareness of the audience and their cultural preconceptions, and adjusting the message accordingly, is of paramount importance. As English continues its reign as the global lingua franca – despite the protestations of Mr Juncker – it is the ability to be understood, resonate and connect that is set to underpin international business communications more than ever.
Niels Footman is Head of Marketing at Copylab, an international communications agency based in Scotland.
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