When living in a predominantly English-speaking country, it is easy to believe the myth of the ‘English bubble’- that native-English speakers do not need to learn a second language as native speakers of other languages are doing the hard work for them by learning English. As it currently, stands, there are an estimated 359 million native speakers of English in the world, and it is estimated that twice that number (750 million) speak of English as a second language.
However, when this figure is compared with the number of native speakers of other languages, the real position of English in the global hierarchy of languages becomes clear: It ranks significantly lower than Mandarin (estimated 955 million) and Spanish (estimated 407 million), and similar to Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian and Bengali, all representing between 2-3% of native speakers globally.
However, this statistic is often circumnavigated by the claim that English is the ‘global language’ of business. This is a common belief, particularly in the finance sector, as trading is mainly conducted in English even in countries where English as a second language in generally uncommon. This is a generally pervading mind-set in the business sector in general, with multinational companies being the obvious exception. In 2012, a survey conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce found that 96% of SMEs in the UK did not consider language skills when recruiting.
While English has been a globally dominant language since the days of Empire, and in more recent times, as the language one of the most powerful economies in the world, the US, the global position of English in terms of economic power has been declining, despite what certain industries may believe.
The recent recession has particularly dented the economic power of the big English-speaking economies- the U.K. and the U.S. This, combined with the increasing concentration of economic power in the Far and Middle-East, in places like China, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, to name a few, has meant that the traditional economic power of English has subsided. Economic power has also been re-shuffled to countries where English as a second language has not been traditional (with the exception of China). The growing markets of Latin America mean that learning Spanish and Portuguese are far more advantageous than learning English, while learning Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese are obviously more beneficial than English for Asian and Middle-Eastern trade partners.
Aside from having an impact in terms of global cohesion and language equality, monolingualism also has a direct economic impact on businesses. It is estimated that about 11% of contracts in the UK are lost annually because SME’s are unable to conduct business in a language other than English. That’s the equivalent of 945,000 lost contracts, or the equivalent in lost revenue of an additional 3-7% tax on exports. Another benefit of being a multilingual business is intercultural awareness, and embarrassing mistakes in foreign language markets can be avoided. When Coca Cola first launched in China, they tried to keep the name as phonetically close to the original English as possible using ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’ as the brand name. Unfortunately for the Coca Cola Company, this translated as something like “bite the wax tadpole".
This is also part of a vicious cycle in which monolingual native English speakers are at risk of becoming disadvantaged on the job market. If competence in English becomes a pre-requisite for working in business, native English speakers will no longer have the competitive edge they currently hold. Additionally, they may eventually be at a disadvantage because of this monolingualism- why hire a monolingual native English speaker when you can hire a someone with English as second language, in addition to their mother tongue and possibly a third or fourth language? Not only does this have on the jobs market, it also affects monolingual businesses based in English-speaking countries.
As economic power shifts eastwards, it’s important that businesses in English-speaking countries keep up with the changing demands of the market. If the current myth that ‘everyone speaks English’ becomes a reality in the future, it will be multilingual businesses that that will then have the competitive edge.