The English language – not to be taken for granted

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.

Euro Languages 1

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:

Euro Languages 2

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.

Euro Languages Diagram

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.’

5 thoughts on “The English language – not to be taken for granted”

  1. This is the point I have been trying to make for months even years, thank you martin for pointing it out. It is nice to have someone to look at the facts rather than reading them in a newspaper, we face losing more than a system of measurement ( i.e imperial ) we face being held back, I know that we are doing it out of blind national pride & the fact the USA is not metric (according to some) . think about this in the next few years China (metric) & India (metric), will overtake the US (non metric) as the economic power in the 21st century, America will eventualy change to metric for economic reasons (no one will buy American if it is not metric).
    Where will that leave Britain apart from a once powerful trading nation to one that is so scared of change it won’t trade with anyone, I like everyone else does not want Britain held back but at the moment I feel it may well be, I hope & pray im wrong. English is a world languge & Metric is a world system both can work together.


  2. India is a strange mix of metric and imperial – as in the UK, everything governmental is done in metric, but the consumer press veers randomly between feet, metres, kilometres and miles.

    On the original piece – any manufacturer listing measurements *solely* in imperial would be deranged (any examples of this actually happening?), given that most people educated in the last 25ish years have a better understanding of cm and kg than of inches and oz. Given that, I can’t imagine a foreign-speaker refusing to read English language instructions because they say “25cm (9.8in)”…


  3. English is my second language but I am fiercely opposed to the replacement of my maternal language in my own country by the English language. Marketeers are trying to destroy my language by bombarding us with English ads and signage in and around shops: many of our shopping streets look like streets in London. Our universities are getting rid of the Dutch language. We should use English only as a means for international communication.
    Around 1980 I had a holiday job in a chemical company. One of the things I did was translating English language instructions to Dutch. Most of these were metric or metric and imperial/USC and in the latter cases I would use the metric data only. However, once I got instructions from a US manufacturer of drills to translate. The measurements in these instructions were rock hard inch-foot only. I have always been opposed to soft metric. A soft metric translation/conversion would have led to nasty and unworkable values, in other words, it was very measurement-sensitive. I did the unthinkable: I maintained the non metric units in the translation. It was a choice between two evils, but I knew that those working there had some practical experience with working with inches, although they used metric in the first place and most of the time. Nevertheless I was deeply ashamed because I had to do this.


  4. Han, I am half-Dutch and I have worked in the Netherlands for a few months – I certainly speak Dutch when I am in the Netherlands. I agree with you that in the Netherlands, English should only be used as a means of international communication. The point that I was making was that if the English-speakers want English to remain the language of international, rather than French or German, then we need to make it more attractive in international situations so that people like yourself choose the English-language version rather than the French or German version when Dutch is not available.

    Your example of the American drill manufacturer is a good one – unless that manufacturer has a monopoly in that market sector (eg the oil sector), then it is likely that he will loose some sales because of his all customary unit approach.


  5. The greatest problem with English is its devilish spelling. I speak as an English teacher, and, frankly, I feel sorry for the poor kids who need to learn to write and spell correctly. Add to this the difficulties of the traditional system of weights and measures and you really have a problem.

    Now there are reasons for the intransigence on the spelling and the weights and measures and that is the sheer insularity of British and Americans, a belief that English speaking people are special above all others and that they don’t really have anything to learn from others.

    In the case of weights and measures something can be done. Fixing spelling is far more difficult. Plenty could be done to deal with both problems but don’t hold your breath while waiting for it to happen.


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