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Language diversity vs lingua franca – do we have to choose?

With over 1.5 billion English speakers in 106 countries globally, it could be tempting for multilingual organisations and multinational bodies, such as the European Union, to communicate solely in English. Digging deeper, however, there are clear pros and cons to using one common language, or lingua franca. There is a need to invest in teaching the common language as well as facilitating and protecting language diversity. Lexigo spoke to Dr Matteo Bonotti from Monash University about the ethics and research around this topic.
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LEXIGO: What are the advantages of using a common language in multinational organisations?

Dr Bonotti: Proponents of using lingua franca such as English argue it has three main benefits:
Efficiency, economic and financial, especially related to trade and market exchanges. It’s simply easier to exchange goods and services if we all speak the same language.
Democracy, as proper democratic debate is only possible if the participants share a common language. Therefore, in multinational or multilingual organisations, such as the European Union (EU), the need arises to have a shared language in order to participate in democratic discussions, through the media or more formally through institutions such as transnational political parties and at the key decision-making levels.
Individuals’ opportunities, if all citizens of a multinational organisation’s member states speak the same language proficiently, that will enable them to access more opportunities (job-related, educational, etc), so the language can be empowering for individuals.
For institutions themselves, the first two reasons, efficiency and democracy, are the most important. For the EU, free trade and the single market are very important, but so is democracy because the EU is often accused of lacking full democratic legitimacy. The more we create a demos of European citizens, the better it is for democratic legitimacy. According to some people, this would require a lingua franca.

LEXIGO: As you discussed in a podcast for ABC Radio National, English proficiency among European Union citizens is not actually very high.

Dr Bonotti: Yes, that is an important point. Scholar Dr Michele Gazzola has carried out quantitative analysis of proficiency levels among EU citizens. He has concluded that the whole idea of English as a lingua franca in the EU is just a myth, it’s not true. Many citizens don’t speak English at a level sufficient to participate in democratic debate.
However, that doesn’t defeat the idea that a lingua franca within the EU is possible, it simply means we might not be there yet. We may need to enhance the learning of English as a lingua franca in the EU to get to a point where 100 percent, or a larger percentage, of citizens speak English proficiently. We could get there through policies.

LEXIGO: Globally more people speak Mandarin or Spanish as their first language. What are the advantages then of English being the lingua franca in multilingual organisations?

Dr Bonotti: The main argument is normally two-fold. Professor Philippe Van Parijs calls it the microdymanics of language use. Firstly, this involves the idea of ‘probability-driven language learning’. Quite simply, people are more encouraged to learn a language which they are likely to use. The more likely you are to use a language, the more likely you are to invest your time, money and resources in learning it. Clearly, most people think of English when choosing a language to learn. Language teaching systems often also think in this way when they decide what languages to prioritise in their curriculum.
Also, the ‘maximin language use’ principle, concerning the micromechanisms of language use. Basically, when you have small groups of people who have different native languages, they will tend to converge towards the language which is known best by the person who knows it least well. For example, if you had Mandarin, Italian and French speakers participating in a conversation, it’s likely that English would be the ‘maximin’ language they would choose.
Many critics of this argument, however, point out cultural and political reasons why English has become the dominant lingua franca in the EU and globally. Many scholars and sociolinguists argue that the cultural dominance of the US and UK especially, and of the Anglosphere more generally, has led to the prevalence of English. Of course, there are advantages in having English as a lingua franca, but according to these critics the Anglosphere’s cultural and political dominance is what has mainly led to a stage where the English language has become almost the default global language. In other words, the rise of English has not been a natural process but a politically driven, culturally biased one.

LEXIGO: What are the limits of using English as a lingua franca?

Dr Bonotti: Van Parijs addresses some of the ethical issues that arise from English as a lingua franca in the EU and globally. Apart from the issue of cultural and political dominance, basically it’s unfair for non-native speakers who have to invest a lot of time and money to learn English. He suggests different ways to compensate non-native speakers for this unfairness, such as taxing native speakers (a measure that, however, he considers problematic) and encouraging non-native speakers to ‘poach the web’, i.e. to take as many online English language resources as they can for free, without considering intellectual property rights.
Even if this unfairness could be eliminated or compensated, however, most non-native speakers will never be able to master English at the same level as native speakers. There’s a critical age beyond which people simply cannot learn a language at the same level as a native speaker, it’s a neurobiological issue. People also have different levels of education in their native language, which can create disparities too. The result is that native speakers of English enjoy more opportunities because they’ll speak it better and more fluently, and will be more articulate.
Van Parijs therefore suggests we should ban dubbing of English-language movies, because research shows if people are exposed to English-language programs with subtitles (in their native language), they’re more likely to learn English, especially if this is done from childhood. Generally, in countries that use subtitles instead of dubbing, English language proficiency is higher.
There’s also an identity-related issue, Van Parijs argues. If we promote English as a lingua franca, speakers of other languages may perceive themselves (or their language) as second-class. They will not enjoy the same esteem as native English speakers. He suggests a linguistic territoriality regime, where one language remains dominant in each territory. This could be at the nation-state or sub-national level. States or regions should be empowered to implement policies to protect their languages from English dominance. One of the best examples is Quebec, Canada, where legislation aims to protect the French language. Everyone is proficient in French thanks to the education system and laws concerning the media or even shop signs. That approach to maintain equality of esteem could prevent English from becoming the first-class language and reducing other languages to second-class status.

LEXIGO: How would Brexit impact English language use in the EU?

Dr Bonotti: Looking at the future of English, the most interesting changes are happening in the EU right now. My colleague Professor Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost and I recently wrote a book, Brexit, Language Policy and Linguistic Diversity. We argued that Brexit will change the language dynamics within the EU because once the UK leaves, the EU and British citizens will no longer be part of the EU demos. The only native English speakers would be the Irish and Maltese (and any British expats in EU member states). Irish and Maltese English speakers will still have an advantage because, as native speakers, they do not have to spend time and money to learn the language. But at the same time, they have incurred costs to preserve their own languages (Irish and Maltese), which have been threatened by English language. In a sense, that equalises the situation with speakers of other languages.
Once most British citizens are no longer EU citizens, there will be fewer prestigious varieties of English within the EU. Received Pronunciation, which is perceived as the best variety of English in the UK, will no longer be widely present in the EU. The main varieties would be Irish and Maltese English, which are normally not considered as prestigious as British or American English. Therefore there will be less inequality of opportunity between different English speakers.
Furthermore, English will become almost no one’s language in the EU. The Irish and Maltese have their own languages which they identify with more. English will be an almost neutral language, as it’s only instrumental for most EU citizens. At the moment, the use of English in the EU gives more importance to British people and British speakers. That will no longer be the case after Brexit.

LEXIGO: How can multinational organisations improve equality for linguistically diverse members or employees?

Dr Bonotti: One important thing, which the EU already does, is to be committed to multilingualism. The EU promotes both English language learning and recognises a number of official languages. It invests a lot of money in translation and interpreting services. People sometimes criticise this, but it’s not really that expensive in the context of the overall EU budget. Recognising member states’ languages is a sign of esteem. The EU has 24 official languages, but it could have more, especially if regional and minority languages were included. This creates greater linguistic equality for employees and citizens. Providing translations and interpreting in key institutions within the EU, such as the European Parliament (which is fully multilingual), creates greater equality between the members of parliament (MEPs) and indirectly for the people whom they represent.
Using translating and interpreting also helps, in some cases, to ensure certain nuances and meanings provided by each language aren’t lost. A lingua franca limits everyone to certain vocabulary and terms, even a certain world view. Other languages have different resources in terms of concepts and grammar, which often reflect a different worldview. Through translation, you can unpack those things. Not everything can be translated perfectly, but you can try. At least the diversity doesn’t remain concealed behind the use of a lingua franca.
On the other hand, promotion of learning at least one lingua franca is important, and English is an obvious choice in the EU. This is important because many EU citizens and even MEPs don’t speak English well enough to actively participate in democracy. Sometimes translation and interpreting are not always feasible, especially in more informal contexts.
Multinational organisations should also educate people, especially native English speakers (if English is the lingua franca they use), to respect intra-linguistic differences. Non-native speakers will continue to have accents that are often considered less prestigious than native accents. Furthermore, there are also different varieties of English among native speakers. What often happens, according to sociolinguistics research, is that people with accents that are considered less prestigious are often dismissed by native speakers. Native speakers need to recognise diversity. The way someone speaks a lingua franca is not linked to their intelligence, ability, or character. Ensuring that people are aware of these issues is an important intervention that should be implemented in multinational organisations, especially where there is a combination of native and non-native English speakers.

LEXIGO: Why do we need translation and interpreting services?

Dr Bonotti: In my field of political theory and philosophy, much research is conducted in English and within the Anglo-American tradition. This risks missing out on a lot of resources that other languages provide when thinking about politics, such as terms that aren’t easily translatable or don’t have a corresponding term in other languages.
Beyond this scholarly dimension, translation and interpreting can also play a more political role. For example, Dr Nicole Doerr’s recent research about political translators in the European social forum showed, when a social movement operates across language barriers (as opposed to movements where everyone speaks the same native language), deliberations are more equal. When translation is used instead of a lingua franca, it is less likely that certain speakers (e.g. native speakers of the lingua franca) dominate the conversation; power asymmetries are less likely to emerge. Interpreters and translators can act as barriers to various forms of bias and stereotypes, and prevent native speakers (of English, or any other language) from taking advantage of their knowledge of the language. Doerr’s work therefore shows that the use of translators can prevent or reduce intra-linguistic injustice.

LEXIGO: What is the future of English as a lingua franca?

Dr Bonotti: While such languages as Mandarin and Spanish, for example, are likely to increase in popularity, English is likely to remain dominant global lingua franca for the time being. It is therefore especially important to address the intra-linguistic justice issues highlighted earlier. One way of doing so was recently proposed by Professor Helder De Schutter. According to him, in order to truly reduce the dominance of the UK, US and Anglosphere varieties of English, we could create national academies of English, so that British or American English speakers would no longer be exclusively setting the rules of English language use. Every country could codify its own version of English. This would formalise diversity and send the message that there is more than one “correct” way to speak English.
LEXIGO offers translation services and solutions in 96 languages, to help multilingual organisations support their staff, members and clients. Email to discuss your needs.
Dr Matteo Bonotti is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Monash University. His research interests include ethical pluralism and cultural diversity in contemporary societies, and the question of how the state should respond to them. His general research interests also include linguistic justice, free speech, religion and political theory, and the normative dimensions of partisanship. He recently co-authored the book, Brexit, Language Policy and Linguistic Diversity, which systematically analyses the potential implications of Brexit for the language policy of the EU and the UK.

Written by Sophia Dickinson, LEXIGO: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences here.