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Multilingualism in the world: the future of the English language in the 21st Century

by Carolina Herranz-Carr  Carolina is an Account Executive at East Creative Agency, a voice-over artist in English and Spanish and a graduate from Brunel University. Her passion for languages comes from her bilingual background. To share a common language and a cultural aptitude are well-known determinants of trade, a belief long held by successful businesses in their international marketing campaigns and trade negotiations. With the far-reaching postcolonial spread of the English language and US dominance in the Western hemisphere, international trade, global politics and cultural interactions soon adopted English as the common ‘lingua franca’, whilst Russian dominated Eastern Europe and French most of Western Africa. This phenomenon accelerated the globalised world of today and created several cultural spheres of influence where none existed before and strengthening older links in some cases. However, in the face of an unsettled post-Brexit anxiety, a perceived void in US global leadership, and China’s entering in the big league of global markets, many are beginning to contemplate the socio-economic consequences of this global shift in direction. What will be the impact on culture, language and business if China is to move towards the centre stage in the world?

A multilingual world and the English language

China’s narrative, lead by Xi Jinping sets out a vision for the years ahead; In his speech, at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, he pronounced a “new era” for China. Pledging for further liberalisation of its markets (while simultaneously calling for stronger state firms). China’s confirmation for its commitment to free trade and its insistence that it mustn’t “hide its light under a bushel and be a modest player abroad”, could mean a golden age for globalisation; generating new opportunities for business and trade. However, China’s integration into the international economy is built upon a socialist market, and carries with it a considerably different cultural approach in comparison to its Western trade partners. The importance of mutual understanding, linguistic and cultural connection will be the key drivers of a successful 21st Century. Additionally, as China's presence in the global stage rises, a potential popularity of the Chinese language abroad could also be on the increase. Spanish, Portuguese French and the English language grew from their home basis in Europe as a result of commercial expansion from the 15th century onwards.

An initiative carried out by the National Security Education Program (NSEP) at the U.S. Department of Defence, highlighted the importance of language skills for international business. Within their Language Flagship report, they noted how the state of Washington claimed to a loss of revenues due to inefficient translation of training contracts and curricular materials into Chinese and other languages. The NSEP concluded that, the preclusion of revenues and relationships that derived from mistranslation, should be countered by cultural awareness within businesses, and an increase in a linguistically skilled workforce. This idea could prove exceptionally important for Europe and Asia in the years ahead, where an increase in trade is expected from Mr. Xi’s ambitious $900 billion New Silk Road Initiative; involving a hefty investment on infrastructure in more than 60 countries. If successful, this activity would centre Eurasian trade on China. Likewise, a post-Brexit UK could also see a shift in trade intensity with China in an effort to connect with fresh markets overseas. If China and the UK sign a FTA, a rise in competition between the EU and Britain could further shape China’s role in the world.

As the divorce date looms closer, the UK must consider the fate of one of its essential, perhaps overlooked assets; the English language as an economic resource (see more in our “The demise of English as an international language?“). Britain has long enjoyed the lucrative benefits of its language dominating the vocabulary of diplomacy, cross-cultural communication and trade, leaving no real incentive to learn another language. However, the possibility of an EU without Britain has left many reassessing the relevance of English as an official language within the union. In the Republic of Ireland, the official language is Gaelic and not English and in Malta, where the majority of people speak English after a period of colonisation, the native language remains Maltese; the only Semitic language spoken in Europe. Some speculate there will be an increase of pressure on EPSO, the EU’s recruitment agency, to discontinue English as one of the three required languages, leaving French and German as likely substitutes. 

Brexit - United Kingdom and European Union

Nonetheless, while the replacement of the English as the cross-cultural communication of choice may be too bold an assumption; with 38% of Europeans currently speaking English as a second language, it is conceivable to acknowledge that China’s economic rise could translate into more Mandarin speakers across the globe. Thus, we may slowly be progressing towards a multilingual world where the English language can play a role, but not the dominant role. In order to prosper and secure economic stability, Britain should not solely rely on its own language to nurture the development and advancement of trade overseas. As stated on the GOV official website, UK business “should not assume Chinese firms will have English-speaking staff”. Alternatively, a strong understanding of the economic, linguistic and cultural differences are crucial if the UK pretends to connect with foreign markets.

Both Brexit and Trumps-lead US, have provoked food for thought about the future political landscape, leading many to ponder upon their own role in the affairs. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarded Canada’s significant allies and trading partners the U.S. and the U.K. as “turning inward”, urging Canada should take advantage of their isolated approach to seize new opportunities abroad. In the same vein, Mr. Xi championed an “enlightened new socialism” amid “crises and chaos” in Western liberal democracies. The future of trade and business will depend on mutual trust, improved language skills in business and a strong understanding of China’s cultural and political landscape as it prepares to further open its markets. Without linguistic connection through common language, efficient translation of services and a cultivation of strategic language policies, the barriers of mistranslation could gradually take their toll.