There are a staggering 1.6 billion people who speak English as a second language. China for example, now has around 10 million fluent English speakers.
It’s an official language of NATO, the UN and, for the time being at least, the EU. English, French and German are the three dominant languages of the EU, however once the UK leave, the only EU States where English is still considered a first language will be Ireland and Malta who collectively account for less than 1% of the EU’s population.
There are calls from across the channel to do away with English in the EU. What will this mean for the future of English as the language of global business?
English may be less popular in Europe, but no less useful
English has become a common currency for doing business around the globe, making it seem highly impractical for the EU to adopt the French or German language in its stead.
Yet despite the impracticalities, it could theoretically happen. Several French politicians have questioned the legitimacy of the English language since the Brexit referendum. Robert Ménard, the mayor of the southern French town of Béziers, said in a Twitter post: “The English language has no more legitimacy in Brussels”.
However, considering there are only 220 million speakers of French and 200 million speakers of German worldwide compared with close to 2 billion English speakers across the globe, completely abandoning English doesn’t seem like a sensible choice for EU countries with global business concerns.
Will this impact how much English is spoken worldwide?
Globally, English is spoken by around one in five people, whether that be as a first or second language. In Europe alone 38% speak English as a foreign language well enough to have a conversation, and that’s not including those native speakers of English.
Moreover, 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language and 79% want their children to learn English.
It’s unlikely that any languages will replace English soon
On the whole it’s not likely that English will fall out of favour soon. In fact, its continued popularity has language experts worried that English could be in part responsible for the death of half the world’s languages in the next century.
Due to China’s size and global influence, many believe Mandarin might overtake English as the language of the business world, however, Mandarin is notoriously hard to learn as an adult. Many linguists have predicted that by 2115 the most common language on the planet could be ‘Singlish’, a kind of Asian-English dialect. Others believe there will be no dominant language and the world will become increasingly bilingual.
English remains key, but if you’re based in Europe, you might want to brush up on your French
English is the common ground that allows business deals and conferences to take place that would otherwise descent into chaos or simply be impossible.
For this reason a number of global companies have adopted an ‘English only’ policy in the workplace. Companies like Airbus, DaimlerChrysler, Nokia, Renault, Samsung and Microsoft all recognise that a shared language (even if it is a second language) helps to facilitate communication and performance.
But whilst English is essential for the logistics, business is also about building human relationships. So if you are conducting a lot of business in the EU and want to continue to do so, take heed of the protestations of a certain French Mayor and learn some basic French or hire a good interpreter. It is likely to help you smooth over a number of bumps along the way.