Watching my husband receiving replies this week to an international meeting request was fascinating. While much of the world’s international business is conducted in English, individual settings on Outlook and Mail are clearly still in local languages. Just a sample of what he received:
- Accepted: 出席 (Chinese), aceptada (Spanish), akzeptiert (German), geaccepteerd (Dutch), 出席 (Japanese)
- Declined: Rifiutato (Italian), refusée (French…it comes so easily), abgelehnt (German), afgeslagen (Dutch), 欠席 (Japanese and likely very polite)
- Tentative: Provvisorio (Italian), ص. تجريبي, مؤقت, متردد (Arabic)
It was clear that local language is alive and well, even in a global company.
So why are we here? Language is a funny thing and reflects the geopolitical climate of its day. It has changed quite a bit over the human experience:
- Latin was the language of the conquering Roman Empire and became the common tongue for the churches that populated conquered territory long after Rome fell. Romance languages today share it as a common base and so it lives on.
- French was the language of diplomacy because the European Continent was constantly at war as the ‘state’ evolved and France sat at the center geographically. It is still the official language of the International Olympic Games (for other reasons).
- Portuguese was a common language as the Age of Exploration began and that tiny country explored more kilometers per capita than any other country in that period.
- English became the language of the Industrial Revolution thanks to the head start enjoyed by the factories of London, Manchester and Birmingham. English accelerated after World War II as the U.S. became the most industrialized nation and humans ended the isolation of the most remote parts of the planet.
- Chinese or Hindi could be the next language to dominate commerce or another aspect of life on our planet.
The language that dominates our future will be decided by globalization. While English appears to have a big lead, there’s nothing to say it will stay there. Time and circumstances will tell. I advise thinking broadly about language: Know the dominant languages of the activities you take part in, whether that’s work, travel, competition or study. Most of all, be ready for a change…language is a form of currency.