Thursday, July 14, 2005

Is English Enough for Global Marketing?

English is the lingua franca of the global business community. English dominates communication about science, technology, commerce, media, politics, entertainment and the Internet. Eighty to ninety percent of all information in the world’s electronic retrieval systems is stored in English. 85% of all international organizations list it as their official operating language. By 2010, the number of people who speak English will exceed the 1.4 billion native speakers.

But don’t assume everyone who speaks or does business in English is getting your message, your meaning or contributing to this momentum.

There is has been considerable research done by GlobalWorks! to determine the linguistic “readiness” of foreign markets for doing business in English. They surveyed the prevalence of English language requirements in job advertisements, subscription rates at English-language magazines, studied local availability of English media, plotted the distribution of multinational corporations and their facilities, analyzed school curricula and interviewed individuals in eighteen markets.

They discovered that perceived knowledge and use of English is greater than actual knowledge and use. Comprehension, vocabulary and the ability to speak and make business decisions in English varies widely.

If “fluency” is the gold standard whereby an individual has an effortless and ready use of everyday and technical language, then the vast majority of non-native speakers are “proficient” rather than fluent. The proficient speaker can, with some degree of comfort, take part in everyday spoken and written communication but lacks the precision and fullness of comprehension that fluency requires. Speakers who are “getting by” are able to ask and answer rudimentary questions and recognize everyday phrases.

Most of those interviewed over-estimated their language capability. This tracks with existing market research. For example, in Italy, Germany and France, around 30% considered their English to be “fluent.” When presented with a fluency test only 3% from the same groups fulfilled the requirements.

Even in a market that is investing in English fluency reality lags behind aspirations. China is working hard to create the appearance of an investment friendly business climate, but the number of real English speakers is considerably less than the number reported by the government.

But the use and spread of English is still perceived as a form of “cultural imperialism” and that in many countries, culture, local laws and customs are a disincentive to learning, speaking and transacting business in English. In some cases, notably in Francophone countries, the use of English has provoked a local backlash that has influenced both the media and local language-oriented legislation.

Reactions to English in many countries fluctuate based on the political situation. And acceptance of English or aspirations to learn English is often a function of class, income, age, education, occupation and access to global media.

While English gives voice to the global marketplace, far from everyone has a functional grasp of the language. In some countries, notably Russia and Eastern Europe, the importance of English is a new phenomenon. In Asia-Pacific the focus on grammar at the expense of speaking has impeded fluency. Ambivalence about English is reflected in countries that are fighting vigorous battles to eradicate the influence of English on their native languages and purge English-isms from their vocabularies and lexicons.

For global marketers, there are several important conclusions:

1. While English is dominant, you cannot assume that everyone understands or comprehends your message.
2. Even where comprehension is high, idiomatic understanding is rare and literal translations often obscure rather than illuminate meaning.
3. Most people think in their native language and mentally translate English back into their local idioms.
4. Most people prefer their native language.
5. English should be accompanied by culturally nuanced translation wherever possible.

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