Globish: the false promise of clear communications across cultures

 | Global business issues

English has risen to eminence because of the lasting effect of the British Empire and the rise of American power since WWII. It has become the world’s lingua franca and everyone is expected to speak it. And there’s the rub. Many people speak and understand it poorly and so they are not at ease in what remains a foreign language with its many expressions, accents, wayward prepositions and rich vocabulary. The scene is therefore set for misunderstanding and communication breakdown.

Many languages can be present at international conferencesEnglish is increasingly becoming the “must speak” language in international meetings and events but the fact is that people who don’t speak English well are often at a serious disadvantage when they have to speak it. Not being native English speakers, what they end up having to speak is what we have become used to calling “Globish”, short for Global English. “Non-glish” would be a better word.

We interpreters are by definition good at languages, yet each of us would opt to speak in our mother tongue to give a presentation or speak in public. In your own language you have resources that you don’t have in other languages. Conference organisers in the UK will often say that a delegate “speaks quite good English” but fail to grasp that he or she is clearer in their own language. Anecdotally, when Pedro Almodóvar’s film “Volver” opened in the UK to critical acclaim for its leading actress Penélope Cruz, the critics all agreed she had far greater depth and breadth in her own language.

All too often, non-native English speakers feel they have no option other than to speak Globish because it is what company culture decrees. But we need to remember that there are whole swathes of the world where people run their affairs in other languages. It’s easy to be swayed by the idea that Globish equals direct – and therefore better – communication but this conveniently ignores that meaning is most accurately conveyed in one’s own language.

It is simpler and less costly than one might think to use professional interpreters to enable people to talk to one another in their mother tongue. The value it adds in terms of quality communication and convenience for everyone involved far exceeds the cost of hiring simultaneous interpreters. In the struggle against Globish, conference interpretation is an indispensable ally! Organisers tend to think interpreters are expensive, but very often the cost per delegate will be less than they are spending on breakfast at the conference hotel. And it’s a lot cheaper than an unsuccessful conference.

For more information on this subject, we invite you to listen to the interview we did with Simon Kuper, free-lance correspondent with the Financial Times and other leading publications.  
I also spoke about the subject in radio interview. You can listen to it here.


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