Languages and Labour Mobility

The Times has a fascinating article today which suggests that British workers will suffer during the recession because of their inability to speak other languages.

…it is clearer than ever that British workers’ inability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the world’s largest single labour market – the EU – stems in large part from longstanding reluctance to make more than a token effort with foreign languages.

In all, about a quarter of the world’s population speaks at least some English. In Europe the figure is far higher: for young Europeans it is 60 per cent. This does mean that, from EU committee rooms to European corporate boardrooms, meetings are increasingly held in English. But it also points to a huge pool of multilingual Europeans who now find themselves at a distinct advantage over mainly monolingual Britons in the European jobs market.

Just one more reason why people should think about learning another language.

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8 replies on “Languages and Labour Mobility”

Surely what this means is as much that it is quite possible for monolingual English speakers to live and work in most of Europe, where English is likely to be the common language of multilingual workforces. This has been true for decades in smaller European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. It will become increasingly true even in the larger ones. Even on the farthest fringes of (non-EU) Europe where I used to work it is quite possible to live in the capital city speaking English only. The French and the Germans won’t like it, but English is well on the way to becoming the lingua franca of Europe.

Peter is correct: “English is well on the way to becoming the lingua franca of Europe” and that is at odds to the piece by The Times. Yet, English has been – at least since WWII – that way. English, is in fact, fast becoming the de facto lingua franca of the world as well… believe it or not, through the unlikely combined works of not only bible translators such as Wycliffe and SIL, but also through the Global War On Terror, re: English speaking troops deployed around the world. (UK, AU, NZ, USA, CAN, etc.)

Those who think maybe Arabic or Chinese would become the language du jure, do not understand the inherent difficulties in that. Neither one lends itself to ease of commerce nor ease of understanding. They make great texts, but English is by far the easiest to pick up and use. (maybe the hardest to master though!) 😉 reeko

The central point of the article is that people who are monolingual will always be at a disadvantage for certain jobs over those who command a number of languages. Yes, it is true that in certain sectors in Europe, English is becoming the de facto work or trade language. However, this is far from universal (at a major Finnish airport a few years ago, I could not find a single taxi driver who could speak English).

I don’t think that English will replace the major European languages in their home countries in the foreseeable future. Anyone working in France (outside of central Paris) will need to speak French for at least my life time and probably well beyond that.

The major factor pushing the use of English is not WBT or the military. The biggest factors are the economic power of the former British Empire and the economic and cultural power of the current American empire. Far more people have listened to Michael Jackson than have been impacted by the US military.

Apart from the writing systems, there is nothing intrinsic to Arabic or Chinese that makes them unsuitable to be international languages. If those cultures ever achieve the economic supremacy that the US currently has, then their languages will become world languages.

Sorry to have to disagree Eddie, but if those two factors (economic and cultural) alone were the natural selectors for “working languages” among people of the world – especially illiterate – then they would all be able to understand Japanese, German, Arabic and/or Chinese – INSTEAD of English. They do not.

Ipso facto QED.

Notice I said “understand” English and not speak or read/write and thus we might be comparing oranges to apples.

As I have seen firsthand, the Modern English language itself does indeed lend itself to immediate rudimentary use, ie: pidgin, far more easier than any other language making it the primary intermodal language of the universe. That does not make it a “universal” use language, but there is an inherent quality that makes it easier to be. I personally believe that God directed that to be so. Not wanting to debate Manifest Destiny or Predisposition etc., but the list of great indigenous translators of all time, both anthropological and religious, is weighted heavily by English speakers. And the reason? IMO English is the preferred bridge language for indigenous peoples – not a perfect one – but probably the best by far. I think we could probably agree on that, right? 😉 reeko

I’m sorry, but I really don’t follow what you are saying here. How well do you speak any of the other languages so that you can judge how well they can be adopted? Are you a fluent speaker of Mandarin, Arabic and French so that you can see how well they can be used by non-native speakers. As a fluent speaker of both French and English, I see no difference whatsoever in the way that they can be picked up by non-native populations – as their use across Africa reflects.

And no, I don’t think that English is the perfect bridge language for indigenous peoples. Having worked most of my life in situations where English was not the lingua-franca, I can see no reason to impose another language on people. And sorry, but I really don’t believe that English is any more special in God’s eyes or purposes than any other language on the planet.

Just a thought about the first part of your comment. None of the languages you mention has had the cultural and economic reach of the English language in the last two hundred years. The British empire was the dominant economic and political force on much of the planet for a long period and for the last sixty or seventy years the US cultural empire has been dominant. I know of very few people outside of Japan who listen to J pop, but I know lots and lots of non-Americans who listen to American rap, R&B and rock. Far from being QED as you suggest, those other languages have had nothing like the same economic and cultural impact as English. There may be other factors involved, but there is no doubt that the economic and cultural power of first the UK and then the US have been the determining factors in the spread of English.

You may be correct. I was only passing by, and decided to comment. I didn’t mean to upset anybody, and it doesn’t upset me at all that you disagree – lots of people do. But I still think you have a disconnect for the difference between somebody learning how to do something via face-to-face contact with English speaking troops (of the countries I mentioned) and indigenous (and mostly illiterate) peoples learning to do things, such as work, with a working knowledge of English learned from pop culture – which only existed in the past several decades. Think 400 yrs or so, to understand the data set I implied. Throw into that equation the virtual armies of English speaking anthropologists, explorers, discoverers, missionaries etc. The difference of learning understandable, rudimentary English from recent pop culture versus globe-trotting English-speaking peoples has been exponential. No other language can compare.

Plz note that The Times article was about workforce and languages. It repeats the error that only 1/4 of the Earth speaks English – yet far more have a basic grasp of English to do “work” that would still not qualify as “speaking” English. And that ability did not come by from listening to pop music or movies.

You are of course correct that French has Patois, and English has Pidgin speakers. And you are correct that they are probably equal in numbers globally. But there is no such counterpart proto-languages in wide use for Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Slavic, Japanese, any Ural-Altaic, or any other language. AND, as you said, English is winning that dominance in workforces in just the past couple decades for the reasons you stated and were in the article.

For a simple exercise ask yourself this, how many people of the world know the word for hello in:

English.
Chinese.
French.
German.
Japanese.
Italian.
Japanese.
Russian.
Arabic.
Farsi. etc… hands down the word “hello” would be known far more than any other. Just a guess… but that’s not scientific. 😉

My background is in linguistics, anthropology and military intelligence, since you asked. But I am only stopping by today as I have some time, probably will check back a few more times and every now and then. I admire your work and support your cause too! I just happened to link over to this blog from either SIL or Wycliffe Bible…. just passing through…

If you are ever at SLI in Dallas, look me up. I am close by and we can do lunch. My treat! (for causing so much trouble.) LOL 😉 reeko

PS: and it was the KJV Bible that enabled the great commission to reach more souls than any other in history. English. Not German, French, Spanish, Latin or Greek. And that was either by God’s design, or a fortuitous coincidence. 😉

Hey, you’ve not caused trouble. The whole point of these blog things is to get people debating. I’d not have a comments section if I only wanted people to agree with me. What a boring world that would be!

Thanks for taking an interest – and please let me know where you disagree. This world is wonderfully diverse and all the better for being so.

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