The Rise and Fall of the English Language — Part 3: A New World Order

In part 1 of this series, we saw how history and luck put English at the top of the world’s linguistic tree. It might not have been the most spoken language in the world, but if English had a GDP, it would dwarf any other language on the planet.

In part 2, we found out that, particularly online, the strength of the English language is dwindling. Just 23 languages (out of more than 7000) are the native tongue of over 4 billion people that’s more than half the world. 

This gentle decline in the use of English should be discussed in terms of the economically-driven success of other countries. Whilst China for its sheer size has hogged the headlines, large parts of Asia and Africa are starting to assert themselves on the world stage. This has consequences for business.

David Graddol, in his prescient 2006 analysis for the British Council, concluded that:

“monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations.”

The sentiment is important: it recognises that we live in a global world, where competition for jobs and customers comes not from people we went to school with, but people on the other side of the planet.

Here’s why an outward-facing attitude to business matters today:

Traditional business and sales

Denying access to customer communities beyond our borders is obviously a dramatic waste of business opportunity which is why The Economist Intelligence Unit directly correlates international communication with profitability, saying of its research among senior executives: 

“The overwhelming majority… believe that if cross-border communication were to improve at their company, then profit, revenue and market share would all improve as well”.

– The Economist Intelligence Unit

Clearly, top performing companies agree: 

“Big multinational companies recognise the importance of language skills. McKinsey counts more than 130 languages spoken across the management consultancy, and offers a bursary to those who wish to learn another language before joining. Unilever estimates that up to 80 of the consumer products group’s 100 most senior leaders speak at least two languages. Standard Chartered seeks out bilinguals for its international graduate training scheme”.
Financial Times [Paywall]

The SaaS revolution and localization

But plenty of modern businesses have no salespeople or human interactions with their customers at all. The as a service” revolution deploys technology to turn traditionally capital-intensive or people-intensive businesses into operationally modelled or subscription businesses, generating savings through economies of scale driven by software. 

It was Marc Andreessen, the legendary technology investor who said, software is eating the world”, meaning that no business can escape technology-driven disruption. We will have ever more interactions which involve no human intervention (a good example of this in our daily lives is the self-serve checkout in your local supermarket), and whether it’s for sales or service, these interactions need to be localised. 

If you use, say, Google Drive or Slack, you’re using a product probably every day which was never explained to you or sold to you by a human being. Would you have signed up for Google Drive; would you have even been capable of signing up for Google Drive, if the process was presented to you in a different language? 

Almost every business now has an online component; almost every online business wants to leverage global reach and scale; and to leverage global reach you need localisation of language.

Support and Service

The same goes for providing after-sales service not only because modern businesses reach across borders, but also because support, like sales, now operates over multiple channels. The web is now a social tool rather than an information tool Facebook and Reddit are the web’s most popular sites (by time spent on site) and we share our experiences, recommendations and gripes on many channels. 

Businesses must monitor Twitter for feedback (i.e. complaints!), and accept interactions with customers by email, website contact page, webchat and a vast number of messaging apps from WhatsApp to Snapchat. All of these are text-based, and most businesses find it hard enough to monitor every channel and triage enquiries or support requests, let alone deal with multiple languages.

 The new Glocalisation

Because there’s no cookie-cutter answer, companies have wrestled with the challenges of achieving global scale while appreciating local nuance. 

McDonalds, for example, is surely one of the world’s most adept brand and product managers, exporting the principle of its restaurants and food across the globe. Even so, sometimes McDonalds means something different in China, for example, it is a prestigious location for a date rather than a fast-food solution. Or, the product itself has to change in France (much to the excitement of visiting school children from the UK), McDonalds serves beer.

The very first McDonald’s of mainland China: Shenzhen, 1990.

In manufacturing, 3D printing is suddenly making it highly economical to manufacture products locally indeed, consumer products and replacement parts will soon be printed on demand on street corners. Suddenly, it makes sense to print the part for a stranded aircraft at the airport where it sits, rather than flying it in from an international hub. It makes sense to print accessories for consumer goods at the till, in real-time. And for many manufacturers, this will mean fewer hubs, and more commercial activity at the front line in each territory, retail outlet, and even in customers’ homes.

The balance of global and local is being disrupted by a new trend again driven by advances in digital manufacturing. The McDonalds example above shows how multinational companies must centralise or decentralise; using hub and spoke” systems of different sizes to achieve different business objectives. Typically, for example, back-office functions like payroll are national or even global; whereas customer-facing functions can be regionalised to local tastes.

Understand and be understood

Business in the new world isn’t going to demand that your senior team speaks multiple languages (although it would certainly help). It does, however, demand that they are capable of working internationally, sensitively to global cultures.

It demands that you are responsive to customers globally. It will become unacceptably disappointing to sell to consumers in their own language, but then fail to provide support as effectively. The customer experience is not an English-only affair. 

Software, hardware, new business models and the interconnection of billions of humans of being are disrupting, rebuilding and eclipsing entire sectors: language cannot remain as the final barrier to capitalising on these opportunities. 


Read next: Why we’re building universal understanding with Unbabel

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