Of Note

Lingua franca

It is not uncommon in Germany (like in some other countries, it should be added) to meet with people who show concern, and occasionally open antagonism, related to the ever more common use of the English language. While there can be little doubt that, sometimes, German conversations are intermingled with English terms which are used with little reflection, the plain fact is that a deeper concern - and sometimes resentment - is grounded in a perceived loss of national heritage and, perhaps even more prevalently, in widespread feelings of inferiority in communications and negotiations in a second language.

Yet, it is evident that English is the dominant language of science and technology, international communications, business and academics, medicine, sports, and popular culture - not to mention the Internet. In information technology, there is no relevant programming language that isn't based on English. Estimates are that not only some 80 percent of information stored on computers is in English, but also 75 percent of letters worldwide now are written in English. English is the official language of many multinational corporations with headquarters outside the English-speaking world. And, unfortunately enough, any contemporary publication not accessible in English is subject to an increasing risk of being forgotten, if not completely ignored.

The implications are obvious. No German university, no business school in particular, can afford to ignore the role of the English language. There is no point in developing new Master level and executive educational programs that do not at least incorporate the use of English - unless they are deliberately positioned at the lower ends of the market. In turn, students are well advised to select programs taught in English. They may well expect that any additional effort invested in English literacy in the beginning of their studies will pay handsome dividends later. Vice versa, those without advanced English language skills will find themselves marginalized right from the start of their careers. This is increasingly the case in disciplines as different as medicine and the life sciences, economics and business - not to mention international trade -, philosophy or the social sciences.

When Latin was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire and, throughout the medieval ages, the language of science, concerns were very similar to those of today about English. Native speakers and, at the time, Italians were envied for their ease and - often, one would hope - elegance and mastery of conversation. Yet, like the Latin language suffered as a result of improper and unsophisticated use, so does English today. Those who struggle with English as a foreign language, however, may find some relief in George Bernard Shaw's* observation dating back to the beginning of the 20 th century. Shaw noted, "In London nine hundred and ninety nine out of every thousand people not only speak bad English but speak even that very badly." Though probably exaggerated, too precise use of English can in fact be a barrier to smooth conversation. As Shaw remarked: "Even among English people, to speak too well is a pedantic affectation. In a foreigner, it is something worse than an affectation: it is an insult to the native who cannot understand his own language when it is too well spoken." The clear consequence for foreign speakers of English, following Shaw, can only be to be less inhibited with the use of English, and not be too bothered when their pronunciation carries a "foreign" accent.


(*)Source: G.B. Shaw (1928): Spoken English and Broken English. London: Linguaphone Institute. Reprint in Tauber, A., and Pitman, Sir J. (eds.) George Bernard Shaw on Language. London: Peter Owen, pp. 54-64.