English triumphs everywhere but home

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The peculiar characteristic of markets with standards is that quality is not important to commercial success. But while Global English has become the lingua franca, native speakers are now less internationally useful than their bilingual colleagues, and English firms have similarly lost a source of advantage.

Some products are chosen not because they are the best available, but because everyone else is using them. Fashions in children’s toys and sports footwear come and go. But for some goods and services there are economic or practical advantages in co-ordinated behaviour. The widest range of movies is available for the most popular format, the best dating agency has the most potential dates.

Control of networks and standards has been lucrative for companies such as Microsoft, BSkyB and Ebay.

The peculiar characteristic of these markets is that quality is not the key to commercial success. Microsoft triumphed not because its operating system was outstanding but because sponsorship by IBM led to many early adoptions. The opportunity to achieve market dominance with unexceptional products is a business strategist’s dream but such opportunities are rare. Google is not the next Microsoft, or even Ebay. Its customers want the best search engine rather than the search engine with the most users. If it ceases to be good, it will be less widely used.

It is hard for private companies to own standards because wide acceptance and proprietary control are in conflict. This tension explains why Sony’s Betamax lost the format war to VHS, and why Visa supplanted Amex as the leading provider of plastic money.

These business lessons are key to the economics of the oldest and most important compatibility standard of all – language.

Almost no one speaks Lithuanian or Tagalog because they chose it as the most mellifluous language, or the easiest to learn, or the one which gave access to the most beautiful literature. Your mother tongue is literally the tongue of your mother. You learn language to communicate first with your parents and then with your friends and neighbours.

Mother tongue compatibility is, like all standards, a natural monopoly; but it is a local one. So many different standards survive, each geographically dominant; only languages spoken by too few people to meet the full range of everyday needs die out.

But globalisation creates a distinct requirement for a standard of global communication. This role was once served by Latin and then by French. But few people then lived in a global world. English is the new lingua franca. Stopped in a French street by Italians asking the way I automatically gave an English response to their question in English. Later I wondered how they knew I was British. Then I realised they probably did not.

So we have the paradox described in last week’s British Council report. English as a first language is in decline. Once the most widely spoken mother tongue, English may already have been overtaken by Hindi, Spanish and variants of Mandarin. But English as a second language is in irresistible ascendancy. The local monopoly becomes less significant as English-speaking regions account for a smaller proportion of population and purchasing power. The global monopoly becomes more entrenched as command of English becomes essential to commercial activity.

Will global, second-language English differ from local, first-language English? And will the economic advantages enjoyed by English native speakers grow or decline? The financial services industry, the most global of all, points to the answers. Native English speakers are now less internationally useful than their bilingual French, German or Spanish colleagues, and British firms have similarly lost a source of advantage.

But the language of the trading floor, peppered with specialist terms and expletives, is not the language of Jane Austen, just as the language of the Australian outback is not the language of Jane Austen. Yet if the trader or the redneck arrive in the boardroom, they speak in terms that Austen would have understood. It is not necessary to have the language skills of Joseph Conrad, Isaiah Berlin or Kazuo Ishiguro to order a meal in a restaurant, but international mergers and acquisitions are never likely to be negotiated in pidgin. The spread of English is not good news for native English speakers but can only be of benefit to the native English language.

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