Is English the Only Language of Business?

When I Google, “English is the language of business”, I get 4.2 million results. When I Google, the same for Chinese, I get half as many results. Clearly, there is much written on the importance of English in business, but what I find interesting is the lack of information about the fact that the world’s largest economy (the United States) does not have the lead (growth) it once had.

I’m not going to argue the relevance of English in the business world; but I want to draw attention to the fact that English does not have quite as much dominance in the business world anymore.

Earth is the Center of the Universe

For thousands of years, the Greek and Roman empires led the people of Earth to believe in the geocentric model of astronomy—meaning they believed this planet was the center of the universe. The sun, moon, other planets, and stars all orbited Earth. Nobody questioned the idea that Earth might not be the center of the universe—let alone our galaxy.

Why? 

First, it became a crime to question the model. An Earth-centric galaxy (and universe) became a great model for religion to prove the existence of God. Religion became the biggest supporter of this model. 

Second, why would anyone want to disprove that Earth was the center of the universe? 

Third, volumes of works and studies were written about geocentrism. It became impossible to believe otherwise. Who was ready to challenge Aristotle or Ptolemy? 

While much is written that English is the center of the business universe, I want to draw attention to some trends and details we might be overlooking as a global business community.

Start with the Facts

First, some numbers: Top 20 Languages by Number of Native Speakers
source: (Wikipedia)

Rank Language Speakers
(millions)
% of World pop.
(March 2019) 
1 Mandarin Chinese 918 11.922
2 Spanish 480 5.994
3 English 379 4.922
4 Hindi   341 4.429
5 Bengali 228 2.961
6 Portuguese 221 2.870
7 Russian 154 2.000
8 Japanese 128 1.662
9 Western Punjabi 92.7 1.204
10 Marathi 83.1 1.079
11 Telugu 82.0 1.065
12 Wu Chinese 81.4 1.057
13 Turkish 79.4 1.031
14 Korean 77.3 1.004
15 French 77.2 1.003
16 German 76.1 0.988
17 Vietnamese 76.0 0.987
18 Tamil 75.0 0.974
19 Yue Chinese 73.1 0.949
20 Urdu  68.6 0.891

You may immediately begin to question why English is the language of business but let me show you this table first. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rank Language First language (L1) Second language (L2) Total
No. of
speakers
No. of
speakers
Rank No. of
speakers
Rank  
1 English 369.7 million 3 898.4 million 1 1.268 billion
2 Mandarin Chinese  921.5 million 1 198.7 million 4 1.120 billion
3 Hindi 342.0 million 4 295.3 million 2 637.3 million
4 Spanish 463.0 million 2 74.9 million 9 537.9 million
5 French 77.3 million 15 199.3 million 3 276.6 million
6 Standard Arabic 274.0 million 274.0 million
7 Bengali 228.5 million 5 36.8 million 13 265.2 million
8 Russian 153.6 million 7 104.3 million 6 258.0 million
9 Portuguese 227.9 million 6 24.2 million 15 252.2 million
10 Indonesian 43.6 million 24 155.4 million 5 199.0 million
11 Urdu 69.0 million 18 101.6 million 7 170.6 million
12 German 75.5 million 17 56.1 million 10 131.6 million
13 Japanese 126.2 million 8 0.1215 million 27 126.4 million
14 Swahili 16.2 million 27 82.3 million 8 98.5 million
15 Marathi 83.1 million 10 12.2 million 17 95.3 million
16 Telugu 82.4 million 11 11.0 million 18 93.0 million
17 Turkish 79.5 million 13 5.7 million 20 85.2 million
18 Yue Chinese  84.5 million 9 0.402 million 24 84.9 million
19 Tamil 77.8 million 14 6.0 million 19 83.8 million

While English is only the third most common primary language, it is the top language spoken as a first or second language. The United States economy has been a massive driver of the global economy for many years. In terms of total GDP, the United States has been in the top two nations for the better part of the past 30 years. International businesses have tried to crack the code of doing business in America. The United States has long-enjoyed a “geocentric” view on business.
I think it is time we start to question that view.

The Heliocentric Model of Global Business

If I were to ask you right now to tell me the fastest growing economy (2001-2010) could you give me the top two or three? You would probably get one right—China. It’s not the top, though. What if I told you six of the Top 10 were in Africa?

Here are the statistics:

  1. Angola 11.1%
  2. China 10.5%
  3. Myanmar 10.3%
  4. Nigeria 8.9%
  5. Ethiopia 8.4%
  6. Kazakhstan 8.2%
  7. Chad 7.9%
  8. Mozambique 7.9%
  9. Cambodia 7.7%
  10. Rwanda 7.6%

(Source: statista.com) *Just for a Jeopardy Trivia Fact, the fastest growing economy 1990-2015 was Equatorial Guinea 

Granted, many of these economies are small in comparison to the larger economies of the world. However, I want to bring attention to the fact that the world dynamic and the United States’ dominance in GDP is eroding away. Like any major player in a niche, market share is constantly under attack. The United States is not exempt.

In terms of economies with the largest contribution to global economic growth in nominal GDP from 2000 to 2010, here are the Top 10 (basically, the largest economies in the world).

  1. European Union 25%
  2. China 14.9%
  3. USA 14.6%
  4. Brazil 4.8%
  5. Germany 4.6%
  6. France 4.0%
  7. Russia 4.0%
  8. India 3.8%
  9. Italy 3.1%
  10. Canada 2.7%

(Source: Wikipedia)

What does this mean for global economics?

Well, let’s take a snapshot of Brazil, for example. “Brazil experienced a period of economic and social progress between 2003 and 2014, when more than 29 million people left poverty and inequality declined significantly. The Gini coefficient dropped 6.6% (from 58.1 to 51.5) during that time. The income level of the poorest 40% of the population increased by an average of 7.1% (in real terms) between 2003 and 2014, compared to a 4.4% increase in income for the population.” (World Bank)

Twenty-nine million people left poverty! To put what I am saying into perspective, take 20 minutes to watch this TED Talk by Hans Rosling in 2006. While the talk is now 14 years old, the point he makes about the “developing world” is going to open your eyes to the deep economic impact of growing nations.

Language Skills as a Competitive Advantage

Why all these numbers? The point I’m trying to make is that while English is the dominant language of business—and it may be for some time to come—that doesn’t mean it’s the only language of business.

In Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore, he makes the point that all growing companies face a chasm they have to get across to experience the explosive growth that few companies ever achieve. To cross that chasm, Moore argues, a company must become great at one thing—they must niche themselves—because the majority of consumers (37%) are pragmatists; and pragmatists want to buy from industry leaders. To become an industry leader, a company must become a big fish (leader) in a small pond (niche).

I believe organizations can use language skills as a key differentiator and unique strength in the global economy. No longer does business “have to happen in the USA.” Global economies are continuing to grow rapidly, creating opportunities like we have never experienced before. Only companies that leverage their unique language skills will be prepared to take advantage of these windows of opportunity.

A Global Business Resource

As your business looks to grow internationally, you might first think about your language skills. See if your employees have a variety of language skills. While on the surface this may seem like an overwhelming challenge, you should look at it as an opportunity. See if your business is positioned to succeed in global regions that your competitors are not. Take a look at where you have pockets of language skills that you can develop internally to give your business a differentiable asset.If you want to know what countries are best for doing business, I found this awesome resource from the World Bank.

The Next Global Differentiator

In one of my favorite movie lines from the Hollywood hit, Men In Black, character K (Tommy Lee Jones), speaking to J (Will Smith), says, “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Five Hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Is English the dominant language of business today, yes! Is English the only language of business? Well, ask yourself the full question, “Is English the only language my business has as a resource, or does my business have other language skills that I can leverage to penetrate easier markets that lack competition?”

Let this blog serve as a premonition that I predict diversity of language skills will become the next significant differentiator for businesses looking for global success.

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