Globalisation was supposed to make it absolutely imperative for me to have a ‘modern language’ GCSE, and look how that turned out. Putting up with Mrs Flanagan for two years equipped me with little more than the ability to get an occasional giggle (or patient correction when I said ‘really, it’s kidney’ when I meant ‘really, it’s nothing’) from the French people I have since worked with.
In my school at 13, French was still the big one. By 15, I found out six months too late that it should have been German. At 18, everyone thought Spanish was paramount, amidst confident claims that no American president after the year 2000 would ever get elected unless he/she spoke it fluently. By the turn of the century, with the inevitable rise of the Chinese superpower, the smart money was supposed to be on learning some Mandarin.
All that fretting seems a bit silly now. We’d clearly seen the evidence for Britain’s post-Imperial decay as a global power and just assumed her language (yes, yes, yes – and America’s etc.) would be going the same way.
I’m not some ignorant linguaphobe who wanders around like a safari-suited Denham Elliot going “Hello! Does anyone speak English?!” refusing to bend to cultural differences. Indeed, being Welsh and married to a Welsh speaker I am equally committed to the preservation of what is, in the cold light of day, a redundant language. But with English utterly dominant as the international language of business in 2014, I believe native English speakers have an exceptional opportunity to exploit their advantage in a global economy for knowledge skills. If you’re a native English speaking communications professional, then you’d better be pretty exceptional in how you use it. There is absolutely no room for you to be complacent.
Whether it’s junior PR pros, trade IT journalists straight out of college or everyday business people going about their work, I’ve seen the average standard of English fall through the floor over the years. At the same time, the skill with English I’ve seen from the likes of German, French, Dutch, Indian and – dare I say it – Australian clients and colleagues has been extraordinary, and getting better all the time. We need to sharpen our pencils!
I gave a talk at Cohesive recently, called “The Chinese Are Coming – so what do they need you for?” which covered some of this in depth. We started off in party atmosphere with a big bowl of prawn crackers and a fairly knockabout exploration of the issues. We ended up soberly confronting the truth that an increasingly international economy is not going to require more diverse language and communications skills; it’s going to need better English ones. I’ll update this blog with a link to the presentation once I figure out how to get a sanitised version of it onto Slideshare.
It’s not just about the Chinese of course, but the Chinese example is especially pertinent to the technology industry with Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government’s goal is to transform the country into a world technological power, and when the Chinese government stands up and says it’s going to do something, it invariably (albeit chillingly) gets it done.
Researching my presentation I found – where figures are available – that only Honduras, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic have a lower proportion of population than China able to speak English (less than 1%). The Chinese government apparently doesn’t believe changing that is a top priority, and why would it?