Tuesday, May 1, 2012

English and free trade

This week I read an article in The Economist newspaper about Tseda Neeley, a professor at Harvard who believes all employees of multinational companies all over the world should be required to speak English. Her main reason is that it is more efficient. Whereas multilingualism is inefficient. The Economist suggests that there may well be good reasons for international businesses using English. For example, it is the main language of science: nearly all influential scientific articles are written in or translated into English so that people all over the world can comment on and contribute to research. The newspaper also reminds us that many multinational companies began in English-speaking countries, including Britain, Australia and, above all, America. Moreover, English-speaking countries supply over 25% of the world’s GDP. In Japan some companies already require all or many of their employees to use English. One of them is Nissan, which manufactures cars in 18 countries.
The policy started when the company went into partnership with the French car firm Renault in 1999. Since few Nissan workers speak French and few Renault employees speak Japanese, having English as the main working language largely avoids the need for translators. Another example is the huge e-commerce company Rakuten. Although based in Japan, the company has connections all over the world. According The Economist, even the menus in the staff canteen are in English. However, The Economist does not think it is a good idea to force employees use English. This London-based newspaper generally takes a free-market approach to the world, whether financial, social or cultural policies. As far as language goes, it argues that people may be motivated to learn English because of business opportunities, but there is no need to force them. A lot of Japanese are forced to learn English nowadays, whether at work or at school. But I wonder how helpful this approach is. Some linguists, such as Jean-Louis Calvet in France, compare languages to currencies and argue that some have more value in the marketplace than others. The question is whether we should interfere in the market or let exchanges take place freely.
Many people feel it is acceptable to interfere in markets in order to protect the weak and the small. In this sense perhaps there may some need to protect minority languages against the expansion of major languages like English, Spanish and Chinese. But it could also be said that making people use English whether they want to or not is an unnecessary interference in the market - on behalf of a currency that is already strong enough. Or perhaps it is just a way of helping people deal with the needs of the global economy?