I am teaching at a German University which trains people to work internationally. This means that classes are held in both German and English, students do internships abroad, and all students are assumed to be fluent in both English and German. Last night, one of the students who did an internship in the UK last summer, indicated that she had heard a British manager indicate that it was not necessary for English speakers to learn a second language, as everyone else is learning English. This of course is a common—and perhaps realistic—attitude among Americans, Australians, and British working internationally, particularly in business and science. Others do learn English, and learn it well. Which raises the question for those of us who are native English speakers, why should we bother to learn a foreign language when everyone else is seemingly learning English? On a certain level, I know that the businessperson my student cited is right. There is an international world out there exemplified by CNN with its multi-national English reading staff. Business people and scientists who jet around the world, holding meetings, negotiating, and pontificating (in English) are also part of this set. There are also substantial middle classes in Europe and Asia which are routinely bi- or tri-lingual, and use their skills at resort hotels around the world. But the international world is more than conference centers and vacation spots. Irrespective of the new found strength of international CNN English, most decision-making does not take place in the international settings English speakers know from quick business or tourist travels. Finer decision-making still takes place in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese, Arabic, or the range of other world languages that do not share English’s privileged status. After the formal negotiation is finished, people still retreat into the ever more private world of their home language, effectively excluding the native English speaker. Does the mono-lingual English speaker lose out on something when this happens?
So at what point does a company insist on foreign language skills from Americans or other native English speakers in hiring, and assignments? Do you insist that the American, Australian, or British person enroll in language courses when they are assigned to a country where English is widely spoken as a second language, such as in Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, India, or increasingly, China? Or does the company save the cost, and take advantage of the willingness of others to study English? It seems that international labor markets are increasingly leaning towards letting us native English speakers take advantage of our situation. My fear though is that this creates an illusion of cultural competency derived simply from the fact that we know airports and hotels, not from the deeper understandings of the cultures of others, which can only be acquired from language study.
I will admit to a bias towards language learning, while also acknowledging that it is a frustrating, tedious, and occasionally embarrassing process. The lessons language learning teaches in humility, and even mental acuity, are valuable. And in the long run, language acquisition is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. In large part this is because as anthropologists are acutely aware, language proficiency provides a window into culture of others. But are these human justifications enough to change the utilitarian attitudes of a business and scientific world where language is a means to an end, and not an end itself? And given the fact that so many others are willing to acquire English, how will this effect the integration of English-speaking people into the international business world in the long run?
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.