How English Became An International Language


Like it or not, English is the global language of business. Today 1.75 billion people speak English at a useful level—that’s one in four of us. Multinational companies such as Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, SAP, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, và Microsoft in Beijing have mandated English as the corporate language. Và any company with a global presence or global aspirations would be wise to vày the same, says HBS professor Tsedal Neeley, to ensure good communication và collaboration with customers, suppliers, business partners, & other stakeholders.

But while moving toward a single language at work is necessary & inevitable, Neeley’s research shows that implementing such a policy is fraught with complications. English-only policies can create job insecurity and dissatisfaction & generate strife between native and nonnative English speakers in cross-national teams.

Companies can anticipate and plan for inevitable challenges và resistance when adopting an English-only policy. Using Japanese internet services firm Rakuten as a case example, this article outlines guidelines for proper implementation.

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Why you need a language strategy now


Adopting a common mode of speech isn’t just a good idea; it’s a must, even for an American company with operations overseas, for instance, or a French company focused on domestic customers. Imagine that a group of salespeople from a company’s Paris headquarters get together for a meeting. Why would you care whether they all could speak English? Now consider that the same group goes on a sales gọi to a company also based in Paris, not realizing that the potential customer would be bringing in employees from other locations who didn’t speak French. This happened at one company I worked with. Sitting together in Paris, employees of those two French companies couldn’t close a deal because the people in the room couldn’t communicate. It was a shocking wake-up call, and the company soon adopted an English corporate language strategy.

Similar concerns drove Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten—Japan’s largest online marketplace—to mandate in March 2010 that English would be the company’s official language of business. The company’s goal was to become the number one mạng internet services company in the world, và Mikitani believed that the new policy—which would affect some 7,100 Japanese employees—was vital to lớn achieving that end, especially as expansion plans were concentrated outside Japan. He also felt responsible for contributing lớn an expanded worldview for his country, a conservative island nation.

The multibillion-dollar company—a cross between và eBay—was on a growth spree: It had acquired in France, & FreeCause in the U.S., in the UK, Tradoria in Germany, Kobo eBooks in Canada, & established joint ventures with major companies in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, và Brazil. Serious about the language change, Mikitani announced the plan khổng lồ employees not in Japanese but in English. Overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced, as were elevator directories. & he stated that employees would have to lớn demonstrate competence on an international English scoring system within two years—or risk demotion or even dismissal.

The truyền thông media instantly picked up the story, and corporate japan reacted with fascination and disdain. Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, publicly asserted, “It’s stupid for a Japanese company lớn only use English in nhật bản when the workforce is mainly Japanese.” But Mikitani was confident that it was the right move, and the policy is bearing fruit. The English mandate has allowed Mikitani to create a remarkably diverse and powerful organization. Today, three out of six senior executives in his engineering organization aren’t Japanese; they don’t even speak Japanese. The company continues to aggressively seek the best talent from around the globe. Half of Rakuten’s Japanese employees now can adequately engage in internal communication in English, & 25% communicate in English with partners và coworkers in foreign subsidiaries on a regular basis.

Adopting a global language policy is not easy, & companies invariably stumble along the way. It’s radical, & it’s almost certain to lớn meet with staunch resistance from employees. Many may feel at a disadvantage if their English isn’t as good as others’, team dynamics and performance can suffer, & national pride can get in the way. But khổng lồ survive and thrive in a global economy, companies must overcome language barriers—and English will almost always be the common ground, at least for now.

The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is spoken at a useful cấp độ by some 1.75 billion people worldwide—that’s one in every four of us. There are close lớn 385 million native speakers in countries like the U.S. & Australia, about a billion fluent speakers in formerly colonized nations such as India & Nigeria, và millions of people around the world who’ve studied it as a second language. An estimated 565 million people use it on the internet.

The benefits of “Englishnization,” as Mikitani calls it, are significant; however, relatively few companies have systematically implemented an English-language policy with sustained results. Through my research & work over the past decade with companies, I’ve developed an adoption framework lớn guide companies in their language efforts. There’s still a lot lớn learn, but success stories vị exist. Adopters will find significant advantages.

Why English Only?

There’s no question that unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and can prevent important interactions from taking place and get in the way of achieving key goals. The need to lớn tightly coordinate tasks và work with customers & partners worldwide has accelerated the move toward English as the official language of business no matter where companies are headquartered.

Three primary reasons are driving the move toward English as a corporate standard.

Competitive pressure.

If you want lớn buy or sell, you have lớn be able lớn communicate with a diverse range of customers, suppliers, and other business partners. If you’re lucky, they’ll giới thiệu your native language—but you can’t count on it. Companies that fail khổng lồ devise a language strategy are essentially limiting their growth opportunities lớn the markets where their language is spoken, clearly putting themselves at a disadvantage lớn competitors that have adopted English-only policies.

Globalization of tasks và resources.

Language differences can cause a bottleneck—a Tower of Babel, as it were—when geographically dispersed employees have to work together to meet corporate goals. An employee from Belgium may need đầu vào from an enterprise in Beirut or Mexico. Without common ground, communication will suffer. Better language comprehension gives employees more firsthand information, which is vital to lớn good decision making. Swiss food giant Nestlé saw great efficiency improvements in purchasing and hiring thanks to its enforcement of English as a company standard.

M&A integration across national boundaries.

Negotiations regarding a merger or acquisition are complicated enough when everybody speaks the same language. But when they don’t, nuances are easily lost, even in simple email exchanges. Also, cross-cultural integration is notoriously tricky; that’s why when Germany’s Hoechst and France’s Rhône-Poulenc merged in 1998 lớn create Aventis, the fifth largest worldwide pharmaceutical company, the new firm chose English as its operating language over French or German to avoid playing favorites. A branding element can also come into play. In the 1990s, a relatively unknown, midsize Italian appliance maker, Merloni, adopted English to further its international image, which gave it an edge when acquiring Russian and British companies.

The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide—that’s one in every four of us.

Obstacles khổng lồ Successful English-Language Policies

To be sure, one-language policies can have repercussions that decrease efficiency. Evidence from my research at Rakuten—along with a study I conducted with Pamela Hinds of Stanford University and Catherine Cramton of George Mason University at a company I’ll điện thoại tư vấn GlobalTech and a study I conducted at a firm I’ll gọi FrenchCo—reveals costs that global English-language rules can create. Proper rollout mitigates the risks, but even well-considered plans can encounter pitfalls. Here are some of the most common.

Change always comes as a shock.

No amount of warning và preparation can entirely prevent the psychological blow to employees when proposed change becomes reality. When Marie (all names in this article are disguised, with the exception of Mikitani and Ito) first learned of FrenchCo’s English-only policy, she was excited. She had been communicating in English with non-French partners for some time, & she saw the proposed policy as a positive sign that the company was becoming more international. That is, until she attended a routine meeting that was normally held in French. “I didn’t realize that the very first meeting after the rule came out was really going lớn be in English. It was a shock,” Marie says. She recalls walking into the meeting with a lot of energy—until she noticed the translator headsets.

“They’re humiliating,” she says. “I felt like an observer rather than a participant at my own company.”

Will Mandarin Be Next?

Given the form size and growth of the Chinese economy, why move to lớn an English-only policy? Isn’t it possible that Mandarin could overtake English as the global language of business? It’s possible, but unlikely. There are two reasons for this.

First, English has a giant head start. Trung quốc can’t replicate Britain’s colonial history. The British Empire began embedding the English language in many parts of the world as early as the 16th century. Philanthropic work by American & British organizations further spread English, long before corporations began to lớn adopt it at the workplace.

Second, for much of the world, Mandarin is extremely difficult to learn. It’s easier to lớn pick up “broken English” than “broken Mandarin.” Knowing Mandarin—or any language spoken by huge numbers of people—is an advantage, clearly. But for now, Mandarin is not a realistic option for a one-language policy.

Compliance is spotty.

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An English mandate created a different problem for a service representative at GlobalTech. Based in Germany, the công nghệ firm had subsidiaries worldwide. Hans, a service representative, received a frantic điện thoại tư vấn from his boss khủng when a key customer’s multimillion-dollar financial services operation ground to lớn a halt as a result of a software glitch. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake for both the customer & GlobalTech. Hans quickly placed a call to the technical department in India, but the software team was unable to lớn jump on the problem because all communications about it were in German—despite the English-only policy instituted two years earlier requiring that all internal communications (meetings, e-mails, documents, & phone calls) be carried out in English. As Hans waited for documents to lớn be translated, the crisis continued khổng lồ escalate. Two years into the implementation, adoption was dragging.

Self-confidence erodes.

When nonnative speakers are forced lớn communicate in English, they can feel that their worth to the company has been diminished, regardless of their fluency level. “The most difficult thing is khổng lồ have lớn admit that one’s value as an English speaker overshadows one’s real value,” a FrenchCo employee says. “For the past 30 years the company did not ask us to develop our foreign-language skills or offer us the opportunity to vì so,” he points out. “Now, it is difficult to lớn accept the fact that we are disqualified.” Employees facing one-language policies often worry that the best jobs will be offered only khổng lồ those with strong English skills, regardless of nội dung expertise.

When my colleagues và I interviewed 164 employees at GlobalTech two years after the company’s English-only policy had been implemented, we found that nearly 70% of employees continued lớn experience frustration with it. At FrenchCo, 56% of medium-fluency English speakers và 42% of low-fluency speakers reported worrying about job advancement because of their relatively limited English skills. Such feelings are common when companies merely announce the new policy and offer language classes rather than implement the shift in a systematic way. It’s worth noting that employees often underestimate their own abilities or overestimate the challenge of developing sufficient fluency. (See the sidebar “Gauging Fluency.”)

Gauging Fluency

Progressing from beginner cấp độ to advanced—which greatly improves an employee’s ability khổng lồ communicate—involves mastering around 3,500 words. That’s a far less daunting task than adding the 10,000 words necessary to move from advanced to lớn native speaker, for which the payoff may be lower.


Job security falters.

Even though achieving sufficient fluency is possible for most, the reality is that with adoption of an English-only policy, employees’ job requirements change—sometimes overnight. That can be a bitter pill lớn swallow, especially among đứng đầu performers. Rakuten’s Mikitani didn’t mince words with his employees: He was clear that he would demote people who didn’t develop their English proficiency.

Employees resist.

It’s not unusual lớn hear nonnative speakers revert khổng lồ their own language at the expense of their English-speaking colleagues, often because it’s faster & easier khổng lồ conduct meetings in their mother tongue. Others may take more aggressive measures lớn avoid speaking English, such as holding meetings at inopportune times. Employees in Asia might schedule a global meeting that falls during the middle of the night in England, for instance. In doing so, nonnative speakers shift their anxiety và loss of power to lớn native speakers.

Many FrenchCo employees said that when they felt that their relatively poor language skills could become conspicuous và have career-related consequences, they simply stopped contributing to lớn common discourse. “They’re afraid khổng lồ make mistakes,” an HR manager at the firm explains, “so they will just not speak at all.”

In other cases, documents that are supposed to lớn be composed in English may be written in the mother tongue—as experienced by Hans at GlobalTech—or not written at all. “It’s too hard khổng lồ write in English, so I don’t vị it!” one GlobalTech employee notes. “And then there’s no documentation at all.”

Performance suffers.

The bottom line takes a hit when employees stop participating in group settings. Once participation ebbs, processes fall apart. Companies miss out on new ideas that might have been generated in meetings. People don’t report costly errors or offer observations about mistakes or questionable decisions. One of the engineers at GlobalTech’s Indian office explained that when meetings reverted into German his ability to lớn contribute was cut off. He lost important information—particularly in side exchanges—despite receiving meeting notes afterward. Often those quick asides contained important contextual information, background analyses, or hypotheses about the root cause of a particular problem. He neither participated in the meetings nor learned from the problem-solving discussions.

An Adoption Framework

Converting the primary language of a business is no small task. In my work I’ve developed a framework for assessing readiness & guidelines for adopting the shift. Adoption depends on two key factors: employee buy-in and belief in capacity. Buy-in is the degree lớn which employees believe that a single language will produce benefits for them or the organization. Belief in their own capacity is the extent lớn which they are confident that they can gain enough fluency to pass muster.

Implementation Tips

Even when language mandates are implemented with care & forethought, negative emotional & organizational dynamics can still arise. But their power lớn derail careers và company work can be significantly mitigated by adequately preparing people và systems for the change. Here are steps that companies can take to lớn manage English-only policies.

Involve all employees.

Before a company introduces a global English policy, leaders should make a persuasive case for why it matters lớn employees & the organization. Employees must be assured that they will be supported in building their language skills. Companywide cultural-awareness training will help nonnative speakers feel heard và valued. Leaders should rally workers behind using English to lớn accomplish goals, rather than learn it khổng lồ meet proficiency standards.

Managers are referees and enforcers.

Managers must take responsibility for ensuring compliance, and they’ll need training in how khổng lồ productively address sensitive issues arising from the radical change. Groups should mix norms prescribing how members will interact, & managers should monitor behavior accordingly. For instance, managers should correct employees who switch into their mother tongue.

Native speakers must màn chơi the playing field.

Native speakers can learn to lớn speak more slowly and simplify their vocabularies. They should refrain from dominating conversations and encourage nonnative speakers to lớn contribute. Native speakers may need coaching on how to lớn bring along less proficient colleagues who are working at a disadvantage.

Nonnative speakers must comply.

Nonnative speakers have a responsibility to lớn comply with the global English policy và to refrain from reverting to lớn their mother tongue, even in informal meetings or communications. More-aggressive actions that exclude or ostracize native speakers, such as scheduling meetings at inopportune times, should be strongly discouraged.

The two dimensions combine lớn produce four categories of response to lớn the change, as shown in the matrix “Four Types of Employee Response.” Ideally, employees would fall in what I gọi the “inspired” category—those who are excited about the move và confident that they can make the shift. They’re optimistic & likely to embrace the challenge. But undoubtedly, some employees will feel “oppressed.” Those people don’t think the change is a good idea, and they don’t think they’ll cut it.


The reality is that without buy-in, employees won’t bother to brush up their language; without belief, they’ll thua thảm hope. I’ve identified some guidelines managers can follow to lớn help people along. Rakuten’s Mikitani has successfully implemented a version of this framework.

Leaders & managers can help employees move from one box lớn another more easily than you might expect. There are fairly simple strategies that aid the shift, typically involving some combination of a strong psychological boost và practical training. To lớn shift employees from “frustrated” to lớn “inspired,” for instance, managers must offer constant encouragement & an array of language-development opportunities. Khổng lồ shift employees from “indifferent” lớn “inspired,” managers must work on improving buy-in—once these employees feel invested in the change, their skills will follow.

Improving belief in capacity.

Managers can use four strategies khổng lồ help people boost their belief in their ability khổng lồ develop language proficiency.

Offer opportunities lớn gain experience with language.

Whether through education, employment, or living abroad, experience tends to give people the confidence they need to succeed in this task. You can’t change past experience, but you can provide opportunities, such as overseas language training & job rotations, that xuất hiện new doors and allow employees to lớn stretch their skills. Rakuten has sent senior executives lớn English-speaking countries lượt thích the UK and the U.S. For full language immersion training. Employees have also been offered weeks-long language-training programs in the Philippines. Although not easily scalable khổng lồ 7,100 Japanese employees, the programs successfully produced individuals with functional English skills. Rakuten also plans lớn send more than 1,000 engineers to công nghệ conferences outside Japan.

Foster positive attitudes.

Attitudes are contagious: People’s faith in their own capabilities grows when they see others around them—peers, managers, friends—having positive experiences with the radical change. The reverse is also true, unfortunately. Managers can model good risk-taking behaviors by showing that they too are trying new things, making mistakes, & learning from those mistakes.

Mikitani focused his personal attention on middle managers because he knew that collectively they could influence thousands of employees. He encouraged them to constantly improve their own language skills và even offered lớn teach them English himself if need be. (Nobody took him up on the offer.) He also encouraged managers to support their subordinates in their efforts to lớn develop their language proficiency.

Use verbal persuasion.

Encouragement và positive reinforcement from managers và executives—simple statements lượt thích “You can vị it” or “I believe in you”—make all the difference. To mitigate turnover threats at Rakuten, managers identified talent that the company wanted khổng lồ retain và tailored special programs for them, all the while cheering them on. Also, Mikitani repeatedly assured his entire workforce that he would do everything in his power to help every employee meet his or her English-proficiency goals. He made it clear that he believes that with effort everyone can adequately learn the language of business and that he did not want to lớn see anyone leave the company because of the English-only policy.

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Encourage good study habits.

Companies need to contract with language vendors who specialize in helping employees at various levels of proficiency. The vendors need to lớn be intimately familiar with the company context so that they can guide employees’ learning, from how best to lớn allocate their time in improving skills to lớn strategies for composing e-mails in English. Rakuten considers language development khổng lồ be part of every job & grants people time during the workday khổng lồ devote to it. Every morning, employees can be seen flipping through their study books in the company’s cafeteria or navigating their e-learning portals.

Improving employee buy-in.

Shifts in buy-in hotline for different measures. But they don’t operate in isolation: Buy-in and belief go together. Strategies that can help people feel more confident include:

Messaging, messaging, & more messaging.

Continual communication from the CEO, executives, and managers is critical. Leaders should stress the importance of globalization in achieving the company’s mission và strategy and demonstrate how language supports that. At Rakuten, Mikitani signaled the importance of the English-language policy khổng lồ his entire organization relentlessly. For instance, each week some 120 managers would submit their business reports, và he would reply to each of them pushing them khổng lồ develop their language skills. I surveyed employees before and after Rakuten implemented the adoption framework. Results indicated a dramatic increase in buy-in after Mikitani showed his employees that he was “obsessed và committed to lớn Englishnization,” as he put it. The vast majority of the employees surveyed said that the policy was a “necessary” move.