The State of the Language

There is good news and bad news about English today. If you are a native speaker then the news is good. English is the global language today and its lead over all others is growing not shrinking.  French has been a competitor in diplomacy and also at the Olympics but its importance is receding.  Chinese may be a competitor in the future but it is just too darned hard for most people to learn. Trust me. I study Chinese.

The bad news for English is that even here in the U.S. many people struggle with it.  The chart below shows the language spoken at home by those over age five.  Spanish as a home language is growing rapidly. At the same time however, enrollment in adult English literacy programs which get Federal funds has been dropping since 2004. We have to do better here.  

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A second problem is English is not the easiest language to teach certain subjects in, like math to young people.  The chart at the bottom shows how learning to count can be simple in some languages (‘ten-seven’ for 17, for instance) compared to English (‘seventeen’). Some studies now put part of the blame for below average results for very young children mastering advanced multi-digit addition and subtraction problems on English. 

A final problem is, how do companies around the world and U.S. adopt a global language? One of my early stock research trips in the mid-1990s was to Indonesia. The 1000-person Nestle team there was headed by a Philippino who dealt with his Indonesian staff in English. Both he and the Indonesians were dealing in a non-native tongue while also dealing with the many cultural differences between their countries and the home office in Switzerland. Complicated.

Some companies have decided to roll out English as their universal language all at once – cold turkey. The Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, the German software company SAP and the Chinese tech company Lenovo have all tried this. Others have tried rolling out English sequentially or a little bit at a time, like Orange, the former France Telecom. But any way you do it, changing how you communicate is going to be hard work.

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