Despite the discourse of the corporate “international class,” the countertrends against the imposition of English as lingua franca point to a much more diverse future.
During our travels, we often meet members of a particular social group. Half jokingly and half seriously, we call them the “international class.” These are people of different nationalities who, having grown up and studied in Britain since childhood, have English-language skills that go beyond the proper handling of a foreign language. In our world, organizational and commercial skills are fundamentally linguistic skills. To the extent that firms have internationalized both their business and their rents since the nineties, those capable of seducing others using the false lingua franca easily won autonomy in corporate organizational charts, and became indispensable. They even reproduced themselves to the point of imposing English as the work language in the organization… which in turn often led to a shift in the composition of the management team and suppliers, among which, not surprisingly, native English speakers began to increase.
Of course, every material change and every imagined identity group bring parallel changes in the content of the conversations. The “international class” loves soirees between governments and “civil society”: great masses of non-conflictive-good-intentions that enshrine discourses that are fashionable in the Anglosphere as supposedly global stories. These spaces are generally good relationship and business environments, but obviously also serve to promote a true recentralization of conversations.
The “problem” is “non-English”
The system functions “organically” and successfully seduces many intelligent, non-billingual business people. Martin Varsavsky’s statements the other day are a good example:
I often find myself representing Spain because there are very few Spaniards who go to certain places where I go, I don’t know why… well, yes, I do, because they don’t speak English. I have spoken highly of Amancio Ortega, but it is amazing that he doesn’t speak English; nor Zapatero, or Rajoy; nor Aznar… well, now he’s learned a bit. But it’s a shame. In Spain, the problem is not Catalan, Basque, or Galician, the problem is English.
In other words, Amancio Ortega is an example of disrption for the managerial order of the “international class.” For them, as Varsavsky remarks, “it is a shame” that entrepreneurs like Ortega manage a global company in their own language. This bad example could even spread to politicians. Where is it all leading?
Of course! Managing in Spanish means giving an advantage to suppliers, managers, and executives whose native language is Spanish, and breaking up the centralizing logic of English. Because, first and foremost, the problem has to do, according to these champions of anglified globalization, with Spanish and French, languages with enough native speakers as to satisfy any company’s needs in terms of suppliers and “native” experts in any field.
So, according to Varsavsky, languages with fewer speakers “are not the problem”: as long as examples such as Inditex don’t proliferate, they will accept that, given the small scale of their labor markets, they will have to rely on professionals from the “international class,” and on companies managed by them.
But why is there so much violence in these statements? First of all, because there is an important countertrend: the reduction of the optimal scale of production multiplies market agents, and the globalization of the small decentralizes a great part of trade flows. So the global SME doesn’t bother to play the game of the “international class,” and doesn’t need to go through the Anglo-Saxon world to sell. If your market is not part of the Anglosphere, in the end, all you need to sell is to speak the language (or languages) of the destination country (or countries) of your products, regardless of whether it’s a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people or by a few thousand.
Second, at this point, unless the primary purpose of an organization is to capture the rents generated by supranational institutions like the EU, it doesn’t need to resort to the Anglophone labor market. Today, there are trained professionals in all languages. Languages such as Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Basque, and Galician, are university languages that prepare all kinds of specialists, while attempts to substitute English for mother tongues in higher education have proven to backfire.
If these countertrends continue to develop, the intended monolingualism of global trade relations will continue to erode, even if the discourse of the international class refuses to see it or disregards it.
Of course, we will see an even more intense development of economic exchange within the linguistic continua. And surely, when what matters is setting up teams of people with different mother tongues, other approaches will become ever more frequent. Some of them will be born out of an appreciation for multilingualism and will be based on the development of intelligibility tools. Others will think of a common language as software that can be chosen and adopted according to common needs. It’s possible we may manage to (quasi-)automate the translation of our correspondence between languages of the same families, but also that synthetic languages, which are going through an identity crisis today, will experience a new flowering with new perspectives.
In short, we will not see one alternative to English as “false lingua franca:” we will see the emergence and consolidation of many in different areas and uses. We are not, as it would seem listening to people like Varsavsky, in a dichotomy between a correct, Anglophone, and enriching globalization on the one hand, and a localist and impoverishing closure, tied to languages that are useless for an open world, on the other.
The alternative is between the recentralization of conversations, companies, and economic flows that posits the “international class” – whose strength grows with the new protectionism and the hyperdevelopment of supranational bureaucracies – and the distributed diversity of the globalization of the small.
In the latter scenario, as in many other issues, there is no single, inevitable, and unique future for all, but many: as many and as diverse as the communities that build them.