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Power, Prestige, and Universal Language: Implications for English as the Language of International Business

EssayChat / Jul 5, 2017


1. Introduction
2. Extra-Linguistic Causes of Language Expansion and the Role of Prestige
3. Universal Language and Linguistic Imperialism
4. Globalization and the Soft Power of the English Language
5. Historical Challenges to Universal Language
6. English as the Language of Business
7. Conclusions The Future of the English Language
8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

As the forces of globalization enhance the fluidity of exchanges with respect to goods, services, information, ideas, and people, certain cultural elements are becoming evermore widespread throughout the worldwide marketplace. Language plays a centralized role in the way individuals perceive their world, thereby shaping the social, political, and economic spheres; the English language, by extension, represents the most prominently used tool of communication within all three of these dimensions, having varying implications for a still-multilingual global community. The following inquiry explores the notion that English is emerging as the language of business and most socially accepted tool of communication among professionals around the world, affording particular attention to how English can be, and indeed is, wielded as a mechanism for exerting the soft power of Western society over other cultures. Positively, the English language represents a common medium for business relationships, essentially standardizing communication and providing a means of interconnecting individuals and groups who would have otherwise remained isolated from one another. The negative impact of linguistic superiority, however, is substantial and multidimensional, as the English language represents a marker for Western identity, rendering its global spread a genuine and visible outcome of cultural imperialism.

Universal LanguageFrom a sociolinguistic perspective, the role of the English language in global society can be framed as both inclusionary and exclusionary, as shared language provides cohesion for speakers and strengthens the feeling of belonging to a group. Non-speakers, conversely, face a formidable barrier to belonging, particularly when the language in question is viewed as socially superior. As the English language becomes more dominant, in essence, non-speakers are burdened with an inferior status marker. The inter-lingual conflict that results between speakers and non-speakers occurs in the sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical domains, affecting relationships, business practices, and policies on all levels.

Adding to the complexity of the English language's place in the global marketplace is the disparity between native and non-native speakers. If linguistic equality was possible by becoming bilingual through education in order for a non-speaker to integrate with speakers of the dominant language, the effects of a common linguistic system would be less drastic. However, languages tend to be mastered to varying degrees and according to various abilities of speakers, with native speakers of a language often having a more natural adeptness toward communicating. The use of English as the language of business, consequently, places more skilled speakers in an optimal social, economic, and political position over non-speakers. In order to delve deeper into the broader implications of the English language's exponential spread during recent years, critical is it to explore the forces behind language expansion and trends associated with a globally dominant language.

The English language has provided a form of universal communication among the increasingly broad and cohesive international community. While English is one of the five most prevalent mother tongues around the world, it embodies a unique and privileged role not enjoyed by other languages spoken just as widely. Political and military power play a profound role in fueling the international expansion of a language, as does the prestige associated with both of those forces. Qi posits that the English language spread exponentially since the 1950s for several reasons, including international relations, the media, film and music specifically, and political and military discourse. By extension, the catalysts for English's increasingly long reach are not inherent to the language itself.

2. Extra-Linguistic Causes of Language Expansion and the Role of Prestige

If a language is to spread purely because of intra-linguistic forces, it does so because it is easily spoken and learned, eloquent, or naturally connective to other languages. Popan posits, however, that language never spreads due to intra-linguistic causes, instead affected by the perceived prestige of speakers, perceived usefulness, and, most saliently, the dominant position of speakers in the social, political, and economic domains: "This dominant position gives the speakers prestige and, in this case, the difference between political power and trendsetting is not that great; the difference lies mainly in the duration of influence. The speaker's position in society appears as a goal worth striving for. In order to reach this goal, we imitate their language and their way of speaking" (175). English, the author continues, does not embody communicative ease and is conversely not linguistically suited for expressing technical details; and yet, due to the perceived social superiority and social, political, and economic control wielded by English speakers, the English language is slowly evolving as universally acceptable in the professional realm.

While a language requires social, political, and economic power in order to spread, the language continues to grow in power in accordance with an expanding number of speakers. The more speakers a language has, the greater the power it is able to wield, as both active and passive use of the language, or oral and written communication, garner a greater reaction if the audience is wider. The prestige of speakers may serve to initially catalyze the language's spread, with social rise and communal integration representing lures for language learning. Cultural conflicts emerge, however, when an increasing number of individuals dissociate from their cultural groups through language. Popan writes that "a person belonging to a minority/less prestigious group is aware of this perception, wishes to dissociate from their group in order to integrate into the more prestigious/majority group. If unsuccessful, the person will have to remain within his or her own group and will be ashamed of it. If the leap was successful, the person usually exaggerates the conformity effort" (p. 175). In either instance, the identity of the speaker is affected by language learning.

Language represents a marker of a social group, with the primary goal in learning a new language to boost communicate ability. By extension, when an individual learns a new language, s/he is likely motivated by a desire to integrate more meaningfully into a social group through language. In doing so, however, the act of integration demands a partial rejection of the previous cultural identity; this manifests as challenge for non-Western cultures around the world.

3. Universal Language and Linguistic Imperialism

Roughly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the universal role of the Latin language weakened as national languages emerged prominently in academic, and namely scientific, discourse; at this time, comparisons between languages revealed that concepts and ideas were generally not communicated equally through all languages, as subtle and non-subtle differences exist between language systems. Each language represents the world differently, making a universal language problematic, at best, and impossible, at worst.

The extra-linguistic forces associated with language expansion are inextricably bound to both political and military power. Cultures able to exert influences outside of their geographic borders using political and military power are in an optimal position to spread their language system. In the case of the Roman Empire, political and military power fueled Latin's spread due to the prestige of the language's speakers. If prestige and power represent interconnected forces, then those belonging to less powerful and less prestigious groups would adapt their language system to that of the group in power.

In comparing cultural imperialism to the less subtle imperialistic practices of the European colonizers, the role of power and prestige with respect to language is even more visible. While the empires of Rome and Spain, for example, have largely collapsed, the language of the colonizers remains the language of the colonized. According to Popan, the colonization of the mind that occurred through language was far more enduring than the physical colonization of geographic space:

The same process took place in the case of Spanish, Latin, etc. , and we are witnessing it today in the case of English...: the United States (and Britain is also profiting from the situation) are taking advantage of their political and military power, of their Hollywood culture and technical prowess in order to transform their own worldview and language into the most socially acknowledged tool of communication. No language resisted this victorious campaign (175).

The internationalization of English has occurred so suddenly and throughout the bulk of professional fields that it has taken on its own semantic life. Dovering calls English the "mother-tongue of globalization," highlighting that it not only fuels innovation in a wide range of arenas but notably shapes the direction in which those fields are trending.

4. Globalization and the Soft Power of the English Language

Soft power can be framed as the ability to garner that which is desired through cultural and political attraction. The English language represents a mechanism of soft power for Western society, and globalization has boosted that power considerably during recent years. According to Malloy, English language proficiency (ELP) is essential to the functioning of the global economic and political spheres, with both governments and corporations needing a high degree of ELP in order to participate in international markets. International political discourse largely occurs in English, and most diplomats are expected to high degree of ELP. The same author contends that the English language represents a "weapon of mass attraction" for the United States and Great Britain, in particular, with training in the English language the ultimate tool for wielding soft power over other nations.

The consequences of English's globalization are many and varied, with the most negative outcomes indicative of marginalized populations and cultural dissolution. For other languages, the almost universal use of English in technology, finance, and science has caused professionals in these and other fields to abandon other languages, leaving them impoverished, underused, and potentially, ultimately defunct. More saliently, the aforementioned ability of a language system to shape the practical manifestations of that which is being communicated means that the trajectories of international business will be shaped largely by Western cultures and that of the United States specifically.

Rose asserts that the soft power of the English language is very much embedded in its use in international diplomacy but is also inextricably bound to the relationship between understanding and language; in the absence of understanding within the context of a conversation, the author posits, soft power does not exist. However, the most formidable soft power is promoted through use of a global language in conjunction with understanding, though these two variables do not automatically coexist. From this perspective, the universality of English is not automatically a mechanism of soft power but does place native speakers at an advantage in understanding content, concepts, and ideas relevant to the international community.

5. Historical Challenges to Universal Language

As English no longer exists as a language system exclusive to its native speakers, it becomes somewhat endangered due to several social, economic, and political phenomenon. Until the 1500s, Latin was the universal language of the Catholic Church and, by extension, the whole of Europe. While the spread of the language was fueled by military and political power, it remained universal out of social necessity, fortified by religion as the strongest, uniting force on the continent. The prominence of the English language can be framed in essentially the same way, with its spread largely political and economic in nature. Though the utility of a common language within global business is irrefutable, just as Latin was invaluable to the reach of the Catholic Church, parallels can be drawn between the weakening of Latin and the potentially pending weakening of the English language system.

The initial evidence that Latin's universality was being challenged was the language's dissemination outside of the exclusive domain of the knowledgeable; as the population of speakers expanded, the prestige and power associated with the language was weakened. Latin was powerful when spoken by the prominent clergy of the Catholic Church, but when more people began to speak Latin, and, even more saliently, when other languages entered the domain of the Church, Latin's universality was irrevocably diminished. When other, national languages entered the Church and were spoken by the prestigious, they disseminated into other professional fields and replaced Latin's exclusive use.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, English's globalization represents a social, economic, and political problem, as it reduces the depth of the language and precludes its further, linguistic expansion. Specifically, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries when Latin was being replaced by national languages, those culture-specific language systems were necessarily expanding to include words and grammatical mechanisms to meet the needs of science and technology; Latin, unable to expand depthfully due to its international scope, did not meet the needs of scientific study. When the population of speakers is too vast, in short, the language cannot be meaningfully enriched to address more localized issues.

From an alternative view, however, national languages not used in the realm of science and technology in the twenty-first century will quickly become underused and consequently, socially dismissed. The often unspoken obligation of membership in the global community is to communicate research findings, political aims, and other issues that warrant a universal form of language; and yet, this obligation may provide the mechanism for language dissolution, perhaps initially for the languages of small and comparatively politically powerless nations but then for the English language, more ultimately.

When Latin's power weakened, the intellectual autonomy of scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers increased considerably; they were unprecedentedly permitted to explore, research, and document findings in their native language, unhindered by communicative gaps. Not charged to invest considerable time and resources in translating their work from their native language into Latin, scientists were able to devote greater energy to empirical pursuits of knowledge. In essence, the surge of scientific innovation, writing, and general Enlightenment that followed Latin's disintegration was not a coincidence but, rather, a result of localized language's ability to provide more depthful explorations of ideas and concepts than a globalized language.

6. English as the Language of Business

As English now emerges as the language of business, with core parallels being drawn not only between the English and Latin language systems but between the social power of the Catholic Church and the current political and economic power of the United States, it follows that non-native speakers of English face considerable challenges in the global marketplace; these challenges are largely rendered as such because native English-speakers do not face them at the same levels, thus manifesting in a linguistically rooted inequity. Popan writes "because we learn to think in our mother tongue, by using it, we are closer to what we want to express. This closeness/intimacy is lost when using a foreign language" (167). The purposes now served by English in the realm of business are similar to those once served by Latin in realm of academia.

The dissolution of Latin did somewhat impede international communications but allowed for more meaningful academic pursuits as well. Additionally, critical is it to note that when Latin was being employed in universal discourse, it was not the native language of any part of the population. There was not, consequently, any single group in an optimal position to express themselves in both their native tongue as well as the universal language. There are, however, millions of native English speakers ideally positioned in the global marketplace simply because of their place of birth. English is the official language of the United States, debatably the most powerful nation in the international community, further binding the language to political and economic clout.

Employing English as a lingua franca, or a bridge language between two individuals who do not share a native language, is less problematic when neither of the two people are native speakers; this is a far more equitable situation than one in which an American or Englishman is one of the two parties. A native speaker is more dominant, powerful, and in control within the context of a conversation. In business relationships, this has a variety of implications, many of which are bound to the optimized position of those born in English-speaking countries. Rose posits that the greater the symmetry in understanding between two speakers, the less likely it is that a linguistic advantage exists for either speaker. The author posts further, however, that the globalization of English has significant disadvantages for native English speakers, and Americans specifically, as they are more likely to isolate themselves from international communication, becoming essentially, linguistically introverted while those whose second language is English will be more internationally connected. Rose argues, in essence, that nations should seek to enhance international understanding, broadly, over proficiency in a common language.

English is consistently linked to discourse regarding global, competitive advantage, with firms charged to have a high level of ELP in order to remain competitive. Mair argues that while English occupies a privileged position in international business, the forces shaping the globalization of the language are changing the very nature of the language. Qi extends Mair's argument and cites that the future of English will be framed according to one of the following outcomes: a universal standard of English that robs the language of its intellectual depth, a fragmentation of the language into more localized forms around the world, or a dissolution of the language as other lingua francas emerge, namely Mandarin or Spanish. In the twenty-first century, evidence that English is taking on more localized dimensions and emerging as specific dialects exists in Asia and the Middle East, in particular. Native English speakers are then in a somewhat compromised position if they exert overconfidence that they can be universally understood.

7. Conclusions The Future of the English Language

Ancient traders of the Mediterranean region realized that the use of a common language boosted the frequency of transactions and generally simplified business negotiations. The use of English as the international language of business is promoted to serve a similar purpose, propelled initially by the military and political power of the British and American governments but perpetuated and sustained by a form of soft power through which the Western World, and the United States in particular, exerts influence over the global marketplace. Several sociolinguistic theorists posit that English has already caused certain cultures to become marginalized in the global business community, as the use of English in international politics is a significant and visible manifestation of the language's power and prestige. Kim highlights empirical evidence that ELP is linked to higher earning rates among men, with these trends likely to continue in the coming years.

Critical is it to note that the dynamic nature of the two forces serving as the subject of this inquiry, namely language and the global marketplace, precludes concrete predictions of English's future. Alqahtani interviewed thirty-five Kuwaiti students regarding the perceived relationship between English and globalization, concluding that a recognition of English as a global language does indeed exist but with limitations, as the majority of participants did not accept English's increased use within their home country specifically but did within the international community; this has specific implications for the universality of English, as a gap may continue to widen between universal English and national languages, a gap similar to that which existed between Latin and national language systems before the sixteenth century.

Just as the expansion of English depended on power and prestige in the social, economic, and political spheres, the maintenance of the language as a universal form of communications depends on the same two forces. The power and prestige associated with a language is inextricably bound to the power and prestige of its speakers. Poplan predicts that as English becomes more widespread in the world sphere, its power will decrease along with its prestige and, perhaps more saliently, its linguistic quality. Non-native speakers of the language are challenged in that they cannot express themselves as fully and meaningfully as native speakers, placing those born in the United States and a handful of other nations in a superior position. Linguistic experts highlight that a core challenge to any universal language is that non-native speakers think in their own, divergent native languages; there is thus a problematic gap between the thoughts themselves and that which is being communicated.

English is undoubtedly likely to remain the language of international business for many years to come, though not indefinitely. Political and social aims to protect multilingualism and cultural diversity exist in contrast to universal language goals. In essence, the core purpose of a common form of business communication is to simplify negotiations and transactions, a goal that does not support in-depth and complex linguistic expression. The current linguistic landscape is not sustainable and is undoubtedly changing under the forces of globalization. The universality of English will remain bound to power and prestige; as long as the language's speakers hold these two characteristics in a globally visible way, English will remain the language of the international community. Changes in the power and prestige of the language's speakers, however, will undoubtedly and likely irrevocably counter English's universal role.


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