Martin Vlietstra suggests a possible threat to our prosperity resulting from our resistance to change.
Within Europe, the English language is now the most common lingua franca. This was brought home to me a few years ago when I was working in Italy. The project specification had been written in France, but was to be implemented in Italy for an Italian company. The specification was written in English. I had previously spent a year and a half working for the Deutsche Bank Their working language is English with a company rule that German may only be used in a meeting if all participants were native German speakers.
This of course is not an excuse for those Britons who fail to learn foreign languages indeed we ought to, but the use of our language as the lingua franca does give us an edge in European business. However, if public opinion in the United Kingdom sends a message to manufacturers that the English language instructions should be in Imperial units rather than metric units, then many continental Europeans, seeing unfamiliar measures in the English version of the instructions, might opt to read the French or German versions instead.
Just how big is this advantage? A report [Ref 1] commissioned a few years ago by the EU commission shows that 51% of all Europeans understood English either as a mother tongue or as a second language. This compares with 32% for German and 26% for French. More details are given in the table shown below.
The report did not investigate how many people spoke more than two languages if a document was presented in English, French and German, then a person who spoke say German as a mother tongue would be very unlikely to use an English language version as the language of choice, but somebody who spoke say Swedish as a mother tongue and both English and German would certainly have a choice between English and German.
Using the above figures and other data in the report, I made some calculations that are tabulated below:
This shows that English is the most common the lingua franca of the EU – if the text of a document is written in English, French and German, 35% of the EU Population might choose to read the English version, either because English is their mother tongue or because the document is not in their mother tongue and English is their second language. The use of English as the lingua franca is brought into play even more decisively when it is realised that nearly two thirds of these people would be using English as a second language. This is schematically illustrated below.
Thus, if Britain is to ensure that the English language retains its role within the world community, we must make sure as a nation that we do not make it unattractive to non-English speakers who have the choice of reading French, Spanish or German as a second language instead of English. One of the ways in which we, as a nation, are handicapping ourselves in activities on which our prosperity depends is by using Imperial, a system of measurement that is hardly used elsewhere in Europe.
Ref 1: (Original article, Official summary & Wikipedia summary),
Editor’s note. The OED definition of ‘lingua franca’ includes: ‘Any language serving as a medium between different nations whose own languages are not the same; system providing mutual understanding.’