In May 2017, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, made a speech in Florence, Italy, which started in English and then switched to French.
He said in English, “Slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe,” before switching to French, continuing, “I would like them to understand what I am saying about Europe and nations.”
His stunt drew applause from the audience and attacks from the British Press, as well as drawing attention to an important question: in the aftermath of Brexit, will there be any reason for English to continue to be an official language of the European Union? And if it was dropped, how would this affect English as a business language in Europe and the rest of the world?
How did English become the dominant business language of Europe?
Historically, the English language has not always been the dominant business language in Europe. In the 18th century, French was the language of international law and diplomacy, and throughout the 19th and early 20th century, German was the principle language spoken. French still continues today as one of the working languages of many international bodies including FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.
When the EEC (European Economic Community) was formed in 1957, its only official languages were German and French. However, when the United Kingdom joined in 1973, English became the third official language. The biggest change came in 2004, when the European Union enlarged with the addition of Eastern Bloc countries. This move solidified English as the predominant language of day to day business in Europe, and this position has become more established each year.
The importance of English in business
Across the world, English is the official language of aviation, diplomacy, science, the media, computers and tourism. Learning English gives you a competitive edge in the job market, whether in your home country or abroad.
As well as being the official language of 53 countries and spoken by around 400 million people across the globe, English is the language of international business. In our modern, instantly connected world, multinational companies straddle all corners of the globe, whereas Brexit is mainly concerned with the relationship between Britain and Europe.
When the British Empire was at its peak, it was said that ‘the sun never sets’ on the Empire, and the same is true today of multinational companies today.
English for business communication
Business English is becoming the predominant mode of communication across companies worldwide. Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing are just some of the international companies mandating English as their official corporate language.
In 2010, Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten (a Japanese cross between Amazon and Ebay) made waves when he brought in ‘Englishnization’, a decree that the company’s official language would be English. He had big expansion plans and believed that his employees being able to speak English for business was vital for growth.
Overnight, his 7,100 Japanese employees came to work to see their cafeteria menus in English and were told that within two years they had to demonstrate competence on an international English scoring system or risk demotion or dismissal.
Japanese business leaders were disdainful, however the policy helped Rakuten grow into an outward-looking, powerful and diverse organisation. By 2015, the average employee score on the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC, had reached 802.6 out of a possible 990 points, up from up 526.2 in 2010. A score above 800 indicates advanced proficiency.
“One reason behind Rakuten’s success is how we are fully able to share know-how and skills on a global basis – what we call the knowledge ecosystem,” Mr. Mikitani said after his company reported an operating profit of Y29.04 billion ($242 million) for the three months ended March 31 2015, a rise of 28.7% from the previous year.
Post Brexit, will English continue being the top business language in Europe?
Dr Marko Modiano, of Gavle University in Sweden has argued in his article English in a Post-Brexit European Union, that Brexit will actually give English a boost by making it the neutral language option:
“English is presenting itself as a unique bedfellow. When using English, EU citizens will all be on the same footing, that is to say, they will be communicating in [a second language] and, as such, only a relatively small number of people will have an unfair advantage.”
Although Ireland proposed Gaelic as its official language in the EU, according to European Commission statistics, 93% of the Irish population would call English their mother tongue and the EU has been unable to translate all public documents into Gaelic due to a shortage of translators.
In addition, by 2014, the European Parliament had estimated that 95% of European Commission texts were drafted in English, and English was spoken almost twice as much as any other language in the European Parliament.
The number of English speakers across Europe reflects the huge investment that so many have already made in learning the language, while many international companies expect employees to be fluent in English and have invested in structured schemes to facilitate this. In several EU states, almost half the population has a ‘very good’ knowledge of English, with 52 percent in Malta, 44 percent in Denmark and 40 percent in Sweden.
According to a Eurobarometer study, 38 percent of EU citizens speak English as a foreign language to a working proficiency. German and French, meanwhile, are spoken to a working proficiency by just 14 percent of EU citizens. Russian and Spanish are spoken by six percent, while Italian is spoken by just three percent of non-native speakers.
So, within the structures of the European Union, as well as the wider corporate world, English will still be the dominant language of business.
The Status of the English Language in Post-Brexit Europe - Politics versus Reality
Juncker’s comment about the English language was also a lesson in its power. As soon as he switched to French, the majority of his European audience put on their interpretation headsets as they spoke English as a second language but not French.
After the Brexit vote, many European politicians were quick to announce that English should and would be removed from Europe, and pre-eminence returned or granted to their native languages. However, English is at the heart of the EU and businesses worldwide.
Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in education. According to a comparative study by Eurostat, 94 percent of upper secondary students in Europe learn English as a foreign language. French is second in the ranking with 23 percent, with German and Spanish coming in third and fourth at 21 and 18 percent, respectively. From a global perspective, English is the fastest-spreading language in human history and is spoken at a useful level by one in four people around the world.
Should I take a Business English course in England?
An Ipsos Mori study found 67 percent of those working in jobs that require international communication said most of their exchanges were conducted in English. Many international companies expect employees to be fluent in English, and so taking a business English course will give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
A British Council report projects that by 2020, two billion people in the world will be studying English. From a mark of the elite, it has now become a basic skill needed for a professional workforce.
By studying business English in England, you ensure that you will be learning the dominant language of business communication from expert native speaker teachers.
Brexit may have altered the political climate of Europe, however English is still the preferred second language across the world and the global language of business.
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