Category Archives: Business ELF

The decline of the monolingual English native speaker

Click the image to jump to "The English empire" from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

Click the image to jump to “The English empire” from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

I like to watch for articles and commentary on the role of English in the world today. Linguists live in a world of their own, and it’s nice to see what the broader world has to say about my research subject. From time to time, an online news source publishes something on English as a lingua franca (ELF), and especially its spread in international business. Usually the stories themselves are fairly dull, but the public forum for comment and discussion can be an informal barometer for language attitudes and ideologies surrounding English.

Last week’s column in the Economist (Schumpeter, 15.2) was no exception. Entitled “The English empire”, the article reads like an advertisement for global English. A long list of multinational companies are listed where English has been adopted as an official language and serves as a lingua franca between non-native speakers and users of English. This spread of English as a business lingua franca (BELF) is hardly news, but the column helpfully gives a list of quotes from various experts who think this is a good and natural development. Then, three obligatory components that must be included in articles like this:

  1. taking a shot at the EU translation regime – “a babbling army of translators costing $1.5 billion a year”
  2. a gratuitous reference to colonialism – “English is the language on which the sun never sets”
  3. a token finger-wag toward monolingual English native speakers – “Too many of them [English native speakers] risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments”

As with an article from the Guardian that I earlier discussed on this blog, the interesting part comes in the reader discussions which follow. Sure, there’s the expected snobbery of language purists toward non-native English speakers1 (and toward American English, of course), along with suitably indignant replies. But in the midst of this and other folk linguistic speculations on the suitability of Mandarin Chinese to be a global lingua franca, an interesting theme emerges – the decline of the monolingual English native speaker. Keep reading…

Spotlight on BELF: English as a Business Lingua Franca

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto's School of Business.

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto’s School of Business.

The fall season of ELF seminars held by Anna Mauranen got started last Thursday with a visit from two of the trailblazers in the research of BELF – English as a business lingua franca. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen of the Aalto University School of Business introduced their approach to BELF in a 2005 paper on two mergers between large Finnish and Swedish companies, where English was adopted as the internal lingua franca. Since then they’ve continued developing BELF research, and this summer they reported on their latest work at the Changing English conference in Helsinki and the ELF6 conference in Rome.

Anne and Leena were the guest speakers at Thursday’s seminar, and they gave a wide-ranging overview of their work up to the present. It was interesting to get this “diachronic” view of their research and to hear how their perspectives on BELF have developed over the years. But even more broadly, it was a good reminder of how the field of ELF research is as new as the globalising trends that have developed around it. Anne and Leena told of their early careers as business communication instructors in the late 1980s, when the focus was on where to place the prescribed elements of a business letter. Today, “business English” means something altogether different, with global implications.

Global Communicative Competence: more than the message

One of the areas investigated by Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen in connection with BELF is Global Communicative Competence (GCC). Their earlier research has used survey and interview data to develop a profile of success factors in BELF communication. We had interesting discussion around these findings, which suggest that “getting the facts/content right” is the most important factor, followed by “getting the politeness right” and “getting the structure/text right”. This interplay between giving the facts and building rapport came out in a quote from one of the Finnish informants: “First you say something nice, then you give the facts, and then you close by saying something nice again”. Keep reading…

Can English native speakers adapt to a lingua franca world?

If English native speakers don't learn to adapt to a world of lingua franca interaction, we might find ourselves wishing we had.

If English native speakers don’t learn to adapt to a world of lingua franca interaction, we might find ourselves wishing we had.

Academia is a world of its own. Linguistic controversies are fought among scholars with little interest from the outside world. There was outrage in response to early propositions that English used as a lingua franca (ELF) should be studied as a legitimate form of English in its own right, and not as perpetually deficient “learner language”. Yet, the ELF world outside kept communicating, and 15-or-so years since the pioneers of ELF research fought their early battles, academics are gradually recognising the uncontroversial and obvious linguistic reality around them.

While academia moves at the speed of, well, academia, I’ve always had more hope for business. English as a lingua franca of business (BELF) is nothing new, and as with academic ELF, there are English native speakers in the mix. How do they adjust to their ELF surroundings? People in business are motivated by money, which motivates efficiency, which motivates doing things right the first time. The same goes for communication. If there was ever a domain in which efficient communication should be a priority, it would be business. Forget about language ideologies of ownership and “purity”. Profit is the ideology of business.

It makes me happy to find people outside academia who “get” ELF. You don’t have to be a linguist to understand the need for English native speakers to adjust to a lingua franca world. So I’ve enjoyed following the Global English for Business Blog by fellow ex-Californian Matt Halsdorff, a business English trainer based in Germany. His blog isn’t devoted to his non-native English-speaking clients, however. Matt blogs on the ways that English native speakers can successfully adjust their English skills to an ELF world of international business.

Keep reading…

The end of Finnish-language business research?

An opinion piece has been published on Aalto University's intention to drop Finnish from MA-level teaching in its Business School.

An opinion piece has been published on Aalto University’s intention to drop Finnish from MA-level teaching in its Business School.

When I earlier wrote about Aalto University’s decision to only offer their Business School’s MA-level instruction in English, I predicted a lively debate in Finland’s major newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. But since then, only one opinion piece has been printed on the issue. The edition of 24.2.2013 contained a letter by Maria Pekkala and Matti Rudanko, a professor in Aalto’s School of Business.

Their opinion piece is measured and reasonable. On one hand, they recognise the necessity of English skills in a globalised world, and they also acknowledge that English has already been a part of business education for some time, partially because the equivalent material often isn’t available in Finnish. But their main point isn’t primarily about language – it’s the need for Finland to invest in the development of its own society.

If a Finnish student can no longer do MA-level research in her own mother tongue in the premier business school in Finland, what is the impact on the broader Finnish society? This is the key issue raised by Pekkala and Prof. Rudanko. Moreover, they point out that a solid knowledge of Finnish is still an important skill that is sought by Finnish employers. And finally, aren’t there areas of Finnish business that ought to researched – in Finnish?

Keep reading…

BELFA is born in Aalto University

Aalto_logoThis new blog has happily coincided with a series of ELF-related stories in the news. Yesterday YLE (the Finnish national public broadcaster) reported that Aalto University wants to offer all MA-level tuition in their business school in English, as early as this fall. Aalto University is something of a “super-school” created in 2010 by the merger of Helsinki’s universities of economics, technology, and art & design. It is also the teaching home of two of our ELFA project members.

This is a major development in the internationalisation of Finnish higher education. The English-language version of the story reports it fairly straight with the title “Aalto University goes for English-only business programmes”, but the Finnish-language version of the story is entitled “Kauppakorkeakoulu hylkäsi suomen – maisteriopinnot vain englanniksi” (Business school abandoned Finnish – MA studies only in English, my translation) and opens with the following line:

“Aalto-yliopiston kansainvälistyminen on saavuttamassa hämmästyttävät mittasuhteet.”
(Aalto University’s internationalisation is reaching astonishing proportions, my translation)

Keep reading…