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Verbal Energy

The kudzu of global business languages

A call for companies to require English of all their employees seems insensitive – and unnecessary.

By Ruth Walker / May 17, 2012



Massachusetts may be the quintessential "blue state." And Harvard University may be the kind of institution the late Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, long an opponent of the civil rights movement, had in mind when his complaints about "pointy-headed intellectuals" put that phrase into our language.

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But from just up the road from me, at the Harvard Business School, comes a proposal that sounds as if it would fit right in with the nativist sentiments of those who want to make "English first" or "English only" the law of the land.

In the May issue of the Harvard Business Review, Tsedal Neeley, assistant professor of business administration at the B-school, calls for companies everywhere to adopt English as their global business standard.

"Global Business Speaks English," the title of her piece proclaims. Its subtitle: "Why You Need a Language Strategy Now." She makes clear that by "a language strategy" she means a policy of mandating English as the common corporate language, even within, "for instance … a French company focused on domestic customers."

She starts with an obvious point: "More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language," among them Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing.

From there, however, she goes to the idea of requiring something that is to a large degree happening naturally anyway. The illustration accompanying the article, by the way, is of a stylized meat grinder, from which stylized figures (em-ployees?) drawn in the manner of Keith Haring emerge. Go figure.

Although her online bio is light on actual biographical detail, it's obvious that Ms. Neeley is not an aging angry white male afraid that Maria and Julio are crowding him out of the job market. Her bio does say she speaks four languages, without saying which the other three are (she's obviously got English nailed). Nor does the bio indicate the order in which she learned them.

In promoting the idea of English as a "lingua franca," she seems unaware that wars have been fought over this kind of thing. Language equals culture equals identity, "who I am" and "what my place in the world is." Not everybody cooks the foods or plays the music or recites the poetry of his or her authentic culture, but just about everyone has a mother tongue to speak.

Neeley concedes, "Many global em-ployees fear that an English-only policy will strip them of their cultural heritage. I propose an alternative point of view." She sees learning English as a way for representatives of other cultures to communicate better and thus get their "brand" out into the workplace, and hence the larger marketplace of ideas.

Mandates aside, it's worth noting that English has a knack for taking root everywhere. English has been disseminated by Britain's colonial past and America's cultural presence. Johnson, the language blog at The Economist, likens English to "a weed."

I'd go one better: English is like kudzu. Kudzu is a climbing and trailing vine, native to Japan and China and first brought to the United States to landscape the Japanese Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Kudzu is now found in much of the southeastern US, and continues to spread through the rural landscape, along power lines and over decrepit buildings and the like – although in the case of the old shacks, perhaps not quite fast enough.

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