Mind your language

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am


Given the unstoppable rise of China as a major economic power and the financial turmoil plaguing Western economies, Putonghua is becoming a fashionable language learned by many around the globe. Nevertheless, there remain up to 1.8 billion people worldwide speaking English today and, without a doubt, English as the world's lingua franca is nowhere near its expiration.

English is not important for people who do not want to travel internationally. English is not important for businesses that do not want to be part of a global network. English is not important for cities that do not want to be international hubs. English is not important for societies that do not want to leave the Industrial Age behind and move forward into a globalised, service-dominant society.

To understand why English is imperative for a business, city or nation that does want to evolve in these ways, one must understand three key concepts: competitor displacement, the distinction between a 'user group' and 'groups of users', and the processes that render manufacturing goods for a globalised world different from providing services for a globalised community.

A basic principle of business competition is that it takes a lot of time and ample mental and financial effort to dislodge a dominant incumbent competitor from its top position. Even then, some competitors simply cannot be extricated. In terms of our globalised world, English is unquestionably the dominant lingua franca. Even with worldwide resistance, it would take years, even decades, to displace English from its position as the leading language of trade, science, education and travel.

It is nonsense for fluent English speakers to argue that English is not important. This is as ridiculous as someone residing in a cosy apartment claiming that people who sleep in the street can live perfectly normal lives. To fully understand this argument, we must first come to know the difference between a 'group of users' and a 'user group'.

People who wear suits and ties are a group of users. They are completely free to stop wearing suits and ties and begin wearing open-neck shirts and trousers, if they wish. They may still work in the same office as the wearers of suits and ties, may still interact with them and can still relate to them on other levels. Groups of users are not connected solely by the product or service they use and do not make use of stringent in-group versus out-group divisions.

However, people who use Facebook, for example, are a user group. They are defined and connected by the product or service that they use - in this case, Facebook. If a man leaves Facebook, he cannot communicate with the Facebook persona of other Facebook users. He must be a Facebook user to communicate with other Facebook users in the Facebook-specific capacity. (Interestingly, the majority of Facebook users, more than 52 per cent, use English; Spanish is a distant second, used by 15 per cent.)

Likewise, English users are a user group. In order to communicate with other English users, one must speak English! If Hong Kong's English standards erode, we will be isolated from the rest of the world. Our inability to communicate with the English-speaking world would make us incalculably less competitive and would essentially dig Hong Kong's own grave.

English is essential for anyone living in the post-industrial service era. Without solid English skills, one could not fathom working for any multinational corporation, regardless of translation technology.

Nearly all multinationals have adopted English as the official communication language throughout their global network. How many from non-English-speaking countries use only their native language in all communication? The answer is surely none.

Exporting services and managing branches around the world is qualitatively different from exporting goods. Multinational success is no longer based on the quality of a product. It is based on the quality of communication, because without effective communication, one cannot provide quality services. Further, the only way to provide quality international service is to deliver that service in English. Any city that does not foster English proficiency will find itself greatly disadvantaged in terms of developing international relations and exporting services.

We need only examine the global hotel network for undeniable evidence of this phenomenon. Virtually all of today's top global chains are based on Anglo-Saxon standards, even our own Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and Shangri-La. Although many have aspired to reach similar global success, non-Anglo-Saxon chains have yet to garner such international prominence, including the Japanese Nikko, French Novotel and Swiss Swissotel chains.

Other places, such as Singapore and Shanghai, would relish seeing Hong Kong's English standards deteriorate, so that dislodging us from our world-leading position would become easier. They would be eager to see us bow out of the English-speaking user-group, rendering us nothing more than an unnamed extra on the world's stage. This will happen if Hong Kong continues to downplay the importance of the English language in our attempts to provide services for a globalised world.

English is not important if we do not care about these things happening. However, if we do, embracing English is the crucial element to the future success and prosperity of every Hong Kong citizen.

Po Chung, co-founder of DHL Asia Pacific, is a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong and convenor of the Hong Kong Institute of Service Leadership and Management