Like it or not, English is the worldwide language that business. This day 1.75 billion civilization speak English in ~ a advantageous level—that’s one in 4 of us. Multinational providers such as Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, SAP, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, and also Microsoft in Beijing have mandated English together the this firm language. And also any agency with a global presence or global aspirations would be wise to carry out the same, states HBS professor Tsedal Neeley, to ensure good communication and also collaboration through customers, suppliers, service partners, and other stakeholders.

But while moving toward a single language at occupational is necessary and also inevitable, Neeley’s research reflects that implementing together a plan is fraught with complications. English-only plans can develop job insecurity and also dissatisfaction and also generate strife between native and nonnative English speakers in cross-national teams.

Companies have the right to anticipate and plan for inevitable challenges and resistance as soon as adopting one English-only policy. Utilizing Japanese net services certain Rakuten as a case example, this write-up outlines guidelines for ideal implementation.

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Why you require a language strategy now


Adopting a common mode of speech isn’t just a great idea; it’s a must, also for an American agency with operations overseas, because that instance, or a French firm focused on domestic customers. Imagine that a team of salespeople native a that company Paris headquarters get together for a meeting. Why would certainly you care whether castle all might speak English? Now take into consideration that the same team goes on a sales contact to a agency also based in Paris, not realizing that the potential customer would certainly be pass in employees from other locations who didn’t speak French. This occurred at one agency I worked with. Sitting with each other in Paris, employee of those two French service providers couldn’t close a deal because the people in the room couldn’t communicate. It was a shocking wake-up call, and also the agency soon embraced an English corporate language strategy.

Similar comes to drove Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten—Japan’s biggest online marketplace—to mandate in march 2010 the English would certainly be the company’s official language of business. The this firm goal was to end up being the number one internet services company in the world, and also Mikitani believed that the brand-new policy—which would influence some 7,100 Japanese employees—was an essential to achieving the end, particularly as expansion plans were concentrated outside Japan. He additionally felt responsible for contributing to an broadened worldview because that his country, a conservative island nation.

The multibillion-dollar company—a cross between and eBay—was ~ above a development spree: that had acquired in France, and FreeCause in the U.S., in the UK, Tradoria in Germany, Kobo eBooks in Canada, and also established joint endeavors with major companies in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Brazil. Serious about the language change, Mikitani announced the setup to employees not in Japanese but in English. Overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus to be replaced, together were elevator directories. And also he proclaimed that employee would have actually to demonstrate competence on an international English scoring device within two years—or risk demotion or also dismissal.

The media instantly choose up the story, and corporate Japan reacted through fascination and also disdain. Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, publicly asserted, “It’s stupid for a Japanese firm to only use English in Japan as soon as the labor force is greatly Japanese.” but Mikitani was confident the it to be the ideal move, and also the policy is bearing fruit. The English mandate has allowed Mikitani to create a remarkably diverse and an effective organization. Today, three out the six senior executives in his engineering organization no Japanese; lock don’t even speak Japanese. The agency continues to aggressively seek the finest talent from roughly the globe. Fifty percent of Rakuten’s Japanese employee now have the right to adequately connect in internal communication in English, and 25% interact in English with partners and also coworkers in foreign subsidiaries ~ above a constant basis.

Adopting a global language policy is not easy, and companies invariably stumble along the way. The radical, and it’s almost certain to accomplish with staunch resistance from employees. Plenty of may feeling at a disadvantage if their English isn’t as an excellent as others’, team dynamics and performance can suffer, and national pride can gain in the way. Yet to survive and thrive in a worldwide economy, companies need to overcome language barriers—and English will virtually always be the typical ground, at least for now.

The fastest-spreading language in person history, English is talked at a valuable level by some 1.75 billion civilization worldwide—that’s one in every 4 of us. There space close come 385 million aboriginal speakers in nations like the U.S. And Australia, around a billion fluent speaker in formerly conquered nations such as India and also Nigeria, and also millions the people roughly the world who’ve learned it together a 2nd language. An approximated 565 million civilization use it on the internet.

The services of “Englishnization,” together Mikitani calls it, room significant; however, relatively couple of companies have actually systematically enforced an English-language plan with sustained results. With my research and work end the past decade through companies, I’ve developed an fostering framework to guide companies in their language efforts. There’s quiet a lot to learn, however success stories perform exist. Adopters will certainly find far-reaching advantages.

Why English Only?

There’s no question that unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and also can prevent important interactions from acquisition place and also get in the method of achieving an essential goals. The have to tightly coordinate tasks and work v customers and partners worldwide has increased the move toward English together the main language of business no matter where suppliers are headquartered.

Three major reasons room driving the relocate toward English as a this firm standard.

Competitive pressure.

If you want to purchase or sell, you have actually to have the ability to communicate through a diverse variety of customers, suppliers, and also other business partners. If you’re lucky, they’ll share your indigenous language—but friend can’t count on it. Providers that fail come devise a language strategy are basically limiting their growth opportunities to the sectors where their language is spoken, clearly putting themselves at a disadvantage to competitors that have adopted English-only policies.

Globalization of tasks and also resources.

Language distinctions can cause a bottleneck—a Tower the Babel, together it were—when geographically dispersed employees have to work with each other to accomplish corporate goals. An employee native Belgium might need input native an companies in Beirut or Mexico. Without usual ground, interaction will suffer. Much better language comprehension gives employees much more firsthand information, i m sorry is an important to great decision making. Swiss food large Nestlé saw great efficiency enhancements in purchasing and hiring many thanks to the enforcement of English as a agency standard.

M&A integration across national boundaries.

Negotiations about a mergers or salvation are complicated enough once everybody speaks the exact same language. However when lock don’t, nuances are quickly lost, even in simple e-mail exchanges. Also, cross-cultural integration is notoriously tricky; it is why as soon as Germany’s Hoechst and France’s Rhône-Poulenc combined in 1998 to create Aventis, the fifth largest global pharmaceutical company, the new firm made decision English together its operating language end French or German to protect against playing favorites. A branding facet can likewise come right into play. In the 1990s, a reasonably unknown, midsize Italian appliance maker, Merloni, adopted English to further its worldwide image, which gave it an sheet when obtaining Russian and also British companies.

The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is spoken at a valuable level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide—that’s one in every 4 of us.

Obstacles to successful English-Language Policies

To be sure, one-language policies can have effects that decrease efficiency. Proof from my study at Rakuten—along v a study I performed with Pamela Hinds of Stanford University and also Catherine Cramton the George Mason university at a firm I’ll call GlobalTech and a research I carried out at a firm I’ll call FrenchCo—reveals prices that worldwide English-language rules deserve to create. Appropriate rollout mitigates the risks, but even well-considered plans can encounter pitfalls. Right here are some of the many common.

Change always comes together a shock.

No quantity of warning and also preparation can completely prevent the mental blow come employees as soon as proposed change becomes reality. As soon as Marie (all surname in this post are disguised, through the exemption of Mikitani and Ito) an initial learned of FrenchCo’s English-only policy, she was excited. She had actually been interacting in English with non-French partners for part time, and also she experienced the proposed plan as a confident sign the the company was becoming much more international. That is, until she to visit a program meeting the was typically held in French. “I didn’t realize the the very first meeting ~ the ascendancy came the end was yes, really going to it is in in English. It was a shock,” Marie says. She recalls walking into the meeting with a the majority of energy—until she noticed the translator headsets.

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

will certainly Mandarin be Next?

Given the size and growth that the Chinese economy, why relocate to one English-only policy? no it possible that Mandarin could overtake English as the worldwide language the business? the possible, however unlikely. There are two reasons for this.

First, English has a gigantic head start. China can’t replicate Britain’s colonial history. The british Empire began embedding the English language in countless parts the the civilization as beforehand as the 16th century. Philanthropic work by American and British organizations additional spread English, long prior to corporations started to adopt it in ~ the workplace.

Second, for much of the world, Mandarin is extremely complicated to learn. It’s easier to pick up “broken English” than “broken Mandarin.” knowing Mandarin—or any type of language talked by vast numbers that people—is an advantage, clearly. However for now, Mandarin is not a realistic choice for a one-language policy.

Compliance is spotty.

an English mandate developed a various problem for a organization representative in ~ GlobalTech. Based in Germany, the an innovation firm had actually subsidiaries worldwide. Hans, a company representative, got a frantic contact from his boss when a an essential customer’s multimillion-dollar financial services procedure ground come a halt as a an outcome of a software program glitch. Thousands of thousands that dollars to be at stake for both the customer and also GlobalTech. Hans easily placed a call to the technological department in India, yet the software team was unable to run on the problem due to the fact that all communications about it were in German—despite the English-only plan instituted 2 years earlier requiring the all internal communications (meetings, e-mails, documents, and phone calls) be brought out in English. As Hans waited for documents to be translated, the crisis ongoing to escalate. Two years right into the implementation, fostering was dragging.

Self-confidence erodes.

when nonnative speakers are forced to interact in English, they deserve to feel that their precious to the agency has been diminished, nevertheless of your fluency level. “The most difficult thing is to need to admit the one’s value as one English speak overshadows one’s genuine value,” a FrenchCo employee says. “For the previous 30 year the firm did no ask us to build our foreign-language skills or market us the opportunity to do so,” he points out. “Now, that is daunting to accept the fact that we room disqualified.” Employees facing one-language policies often issue that the best jobs will be available only come those with strong English skills, nevertheless of content expertise.

When my colleagues and also I interviewed 164 employee at GlobalTech 2 years ~ the this firm English-only policy had been implemented, we discovered that virtually 70% the employees continued to experience frustration through it. In ~ FrenchCo, 56% the medium-fluency English speakers and 42% of low-fluency speakers reported worrying about job advancement because of their relatively minimal English skills. Such feelings are common when companies merely announce the new policy and offer language classes quite than perform the transition in a methodical way. It’s worth noting that employees frequently underestimate their very own abilities or evaluate the difficulty of arising sufficient fluency. (See the sidebar “Gauging Fluency.”)

Gauging Fluency

Progressing from beginner level to advanced—which considerably improves an employee’s capacity to communicate—involves mastering approximately 3,500 words. That’s a far less challenging task than including the 10,000 words crucial to move from advanced to native speaker, because that which the payoff may be lower.


Job protection falters.

also though achieving enough fluency is feasible for most, the truth is the with fostering of an English-only policy, employees’ job demands change—sometimes overnight. That deserve to be a bitter pill to swallow, especially amongst top performers. Rakuten’s Mikitani no mince words through his employees: He was clear that he would certainly demote world who didn’t develop their English proficiency.

Employees resist.

it’s not unexplained to listen nonnative speakers revert to their own language in ~ the cost of their English-speaking colleagues, often because it’s faster and also easier to command meetings in their mom tongue. Others might take more aggressive procedures to protect against speaking English, such together holding meetings in ~ inopportune times. Employees in Asia might schedule a an international meeting the falls during the middle of the night in England, because that instance. In doing so, nonnative speakers shift their anxiety and loss of strength to indigenous speakers.

Many FrenchCo employees stated that as soon as they felt that their relatively poor language skills could end up being conspicuous and have career-related consequences, they merely stopped contributing to common discourse. “They’re afraid to do mistakes,” one HR manager at the certain explains, “so lock will just not speak at all.”

In various other cases, records that are an alleged to be composed in English might be created in the mother tongue—as proficient by Hans at GlobalTech—or not written at all. “It’s too difficult to write in English, so ns don’t perform it!” one GlobalTech employee notes. “And climate there’s no documentation at all.”

Performance suffers.

The bottom line takes a hit as soon as employees prevent participating in group settings. When participation ebbs, processes autumn apart. Companies miss out on out on brand-new ideas that might have been produced in meetings. World don’t report costly errors or sell observations about mistakes or questionable decisions. One of the designers at GlobalTech’s Indian office defined that as soon as meetings reverted right into German his ability to add was reduced off. He lost vital information—particularly in next exchanges—despite receiving conference notes afterward. Regularly those fast asides contained important contextual information, lift analyses, or hypotheses around the root cause of a certain problem. He neither participated in the meetings nor learned from the problem-solving discussions.

An adoption Framework

Converting the main language the a company is no small task. In my job-related I’ve emerged a frame for assessing readiness and also guidelines for adopting the shift. Fostering depends on two crucial factors: employee buy-in and also belief in capacity. Buy-in is the level to which employees think that a single language will develop benefits because that them or the organization. Belief in their very own capacity is the degree to i m sorry they are confident the they can gain enough fluency to pass muster.

Implementation advice

Even as soon as language mandates are enforced with care and also forethought, an unfavorable emotional and organizational dynamics have the right to still arise. Yet their power to derail careers and company work can be substantially mitigated by adequately prepare people and also systems for the change. Right here are steps that companies deserve to take to regulate English-only policies.

Involve all employees.

Before a company introduces a worldwide English policy, leaders must make a persuasive case for why it problem to employees and the organization. Employees should be assured the they will be sustained in structure their language skills. Companywide cultural-awareness training will help nonnative speakers feel heard and also valued. Leaders should rally employees behind using English to attain goals, rather than find out it to accomplish proficiency standards.

supervisors are referees and also enforcers.

Managers have to take duty for ensuring compliance, and they’ll require training in just how to productively resolve sensitive issues arising from the radical change. Groups should collection norms prescribing exactly how members will certainly interact, and also managers have to monitor actions accordingly. For instance, supervisors should exactly employees who switch right into their mommy tongue.

aboriginal speakers need to level the play field.

Native speakers deserve to learn come speak much more slowly and simplify their vocabularies. They have to refrain from overcoming conversations and encourage nonnative speaker to contribute. Indigenous speakers may need coaching on exactly how to lug along less proficient colleagues who room working in ~ a disadvantage.

Nonnative speakers need to comply.

Nonnative speakers have a duty to comply v the an international English policy and to stop from reverting to their mom tongue, also in not blocked meetings or communications. More-aggressive actions the exclude or ostracize indigenous speakers, such together scheduling meetings at inopportune times, should be strong discouraged.

The 2 dimensions integrate to create four category of an answer to the change, as displayed in the matrix “Four species of Employee Response.” Ideally, employees would fall in what I call the “inspired” category—those who room excited about the move and confident the they can make the shift. Lock optimistic and also likely to take on the challenge. However undoubtedly, some employees will feel “oppressed.” Those human being don’t think the change is a an excellent idea, and also they nothing think they’ll reduced it.


The fact is the without buy-in, employee won’t stroked nerves to brush up your language; without belief, they’ll shed hope. I’ve established some guidelines managers can follow to aid people along. Rakuten’s Mikitani has properly implemented a version of this framework.

Leaders and also managers can aid employees relocate from one box to another more easily 보다 you can expect. Over there are reasonably simple techniques that assist the shift, generally involving some mix of a solid psychological boost and valuable training. To transition employees from “frustrated” to “inspired,” because that instance, supervisors must offer consistent encouragement and variety of language-development opportunities. To shift employees indigenous “indifferent” come “inspired,” supervisors must occupational on improving buy-in—once this employees feel invested in the change, their skills will follow.

Improving belief in capacity.

Managers have the right to use 4 strategies to aid people boost their id in their capacity to develop language proficiency.

Offer avenues to gain experience through language.

Whether through education, employment, or life abroad, suffer tends come give people the confidence they must succeed in this task. Friend can’t adjust past experience, but you can administer opportunities, such as abroad language training and job rotations, the open brand-new doors and allow employees come stretch their skills. Rakuten has sent senior executives come English-speaking countries like the UK and also the U.S. For full language immersion training. Employee have also been offered weeks-long language-training program in the Philippines. Although not quickly scalable to 7,100 Japanese employees, the programs successfully created individuals with functional English skills. Rakuten likewise plans come send an ext than 1,000 designers to modern technology conferences external Japan.

Foster positive attitudes.

perspectives are contagious: People’s faith in their own capabilities grows when they watch others roughly them—peers, managers, friends—having optimistic experiences with the radical change. The turning back is additionally true, unfortunately. Managers can model great risk-taking habits by reflecting that castle too room trying new things, do mistakes, and also learning from those mistakes.

Mikitani focused his an individual attention on center managers since he knew that jointly they could influence hundreds of employees. He urged them to constantly enhance their very own language skills and even readily available to teach lock English himself if need be. (Nobody take it him up on the offer.) He additionally encouraged supervisors to support their subordinates in their efforts to build their language proficiency.

usage verbal persuasion.

Encouragement and also positive reinforcement from managers and also executives—simple statements choose “You have the right to do it” or “I think in you”—make all the difference. To mitigate turnover risks at Rakuten, managers established talent the the agency wanted come retain and tailored unique programs for them, every the if cheering castle on. Also, Mikitani repetitively assured his entire workforce the he would do whatever in his strength to assist every employee fulfill his or she English-proficiency goals. He made the clear the he believes that with initiative everyone have the right to adequately find out the language the business and that he did not desire to see anyone leave the company because that the English-only policy.

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Encourage great study habits.

Companies must contract with language sellers who specialization in help employees at miscellaneous levels that proficiency. The vendors need to be intimately acquainted with the company context so the they can overview employees’ learning, from how ideal to allocate your time in improving skills to techniques for creating e-mails in English. Rakuten considers language breakthrough to be part of every job and also grants civilization time throughout the workday to devote to it. Every morning, employees deserve to be seen flipping v their study publications in the company’s cafeteria or navigating your e-learning portals.

Improving employee buy-in.

shifts in buy-in speak to for various measures. Yet they don’t run in isolation: Buy-in and also belief walk together. Tactics that can aid people feel an ext confident include:

Messaging, messaging, and much more messaging.

Continual interaction from the CEO, executives, and also managers is critical. Leaders must stress the importance of globalization in achieving the that company mission and strategy and demonstrate just how language supports that. In ~ Rakuten, Mikitani signaled the prestige of the English-language policy to his entire organization relentlessly. Because that instance, every week part 120 managers would send their organization reports, and also he would certainly reply to each of them advertise them to construct their language skills. I surveyed employees before and after Rakuten implemented the fostering framework. Results shown a dramatic boost in buy-in after ~ Mikitani proved his employees that he to be “obsessed and also committed come Englishnization,” as he placed it. The vast bulk of the employees surveyed stated that the plan was a “necessary” move.