Everyone Speaks English, Right?

This week, I spent a bunch of time reading. Well, to be honest, I usually spend a bunch of time reading. What caught my eye this week were articles about English and other languages. There is a lot being written lately about the importance of raising Americans to be multi-lingual.

In his New York Times essay about preparing students for the future, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers writes:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. 

Talk about a big, bold statement. Much has been written in response to these words. In fact, the New York Times has printed a series of rebuttals to Mr. Summer’s directive. In the “Room for Debate” section of The Times, the article English is Global, So Why Learn Arabic? features six well-qualified individuals debating the pros and cons of teaching Americans a second or third language.

  • Stacie Nevadomski Berdan’s says that is it important for people to understand multiple languages so that they can also appreciate cultures, and connect and build relationships around the world.
  • Anthony Jackson posits that learning another language correlates closely with academic achievement.
  • Michael Erard agrees that English has become an international standard. He, too, cites the importance of understanding multiple cultures and basically says that if you are going to learn a lot about a culture, you should go all the way and learn the language, as well.
  • Melanie Ho, who is tri-lingual, says that fluency in multiple languages is not necessarily important, but proficiency is. In fact, she notes that one of her acquaintances in Hong Kong is happy to teach her Chinese, but has no desire to learn English. The Hong Kong native says that if someone wants to communicate with her, that person will have to speak Chinese.
  • Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco completely disagrees with the entire premise of Larry Summer’s statement. In fact, he goes so far as to say that people who are economists by trade (such as Larry Summers) should stay out of the conversation entirely.
  • Clayton Lewis believes that learning additional languages provides people with the ability to have more meaningful experiences and, in effect, learn more. For Clayton Lewis, being proficient isn’t enough. Fluency, while difficult, is key.

After reading these opinions, I next read Lori Thicke’s blog post Call for Translation in Kenya’s Kibera Slum. Lori’s post speaks of her experience traveling to Kiberia and meeting with a group of young sex slave workers. These young women are “peer educators”. Their job is to teach other women about family planning, nutrition, and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

According to the peer educators, the main challenge they face teaching others life saving facts is that all of the donated printed material is written in English. Most of the people in their village do not speak English. Therefore, this critical information is unavailable to the people who need it most.

I realize that these two sets of articles are really not focused on the same thing. The New York Times articles are all about teaching Americans to be multi-lingual. And Lori’s article is about recognizing that the rest of the world does not necessarily speak English.

What the articles all have in common is the unrealistic notion that English is somehow the only language people need to know. And whether it is teaching Americans other languages or getting Americans to produce information in other languages, the theme is the same.

We need to stop thinking that everyone speaks English. We need to recognize that other languages are equally important – sometimes making the difference between life and death.

All of these things point to one fact: If we are going to write in English, that English needs to be simple enough that it can be translated into all of the other languages that the rest of the world speaks. And it would be even better if the writers of the English content are well-versed in multiple languages so that they avoid the common English-only writing traps that we frequently create for ourselves and our translators.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.
Blog · Global Readiness · February 11, 2012


  • Hans Peter Bech

    Go to Germany, France, Italy and Spain and try to sell something to consumers, businesses and government and you will find out that English is not a universal language. 

  • Terence Lewis

    Indeed! Of course, the key issue is not that many people in the world may speak and understand some form of English, but what language they are most comfortable in. Welsh is a case in point. There must be only a handful of very old folk in Wales with little or no English. On the other hand, there is a sizable proportion of the population who are happier speaking Welsh. That’s the language they talk down the pub, that’s the language in which they talk to their kids, that’s the language they have sex in. We always need to make sure our (potential) customers feel comfortable.

    • Agreed. And that’s when comfort is the crux of the matter. When people’s lives are at stake, it is an imperative. Thanks for your comments!

  • Anonymous

    People sometimes forget that while machines can translate words, they can’t translate meaning.  You see, language is culture, and thus carries certain nuances.  If we want machines to be able to translate cultural nuances, we’ll probably have to wait until we have HAL from “2001” or Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet”.

    • It’s a good thing that the majority of translation firms are using actual PEOPLE to do their translating. I have been fortunate enough to see the difference between what is translated from French to English by Google’s translate function, and what the actual translation is by an actual French person!

  • BettyBlueEyes

    Language is way too much fun to learn. No way would I give it up! There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about letting a foreign language trip off your tongue. It impresses the natives because they know you care enough to adapt to their way — you’re not expecting them to adapt to yours. I learned French in high school, and I learned an Italian dialect from my grandparents. I have Spanish language CDs in my car so I can at least ask for the right directions when I travel in Latin America. E tutto bene! 

    • Allan in Boulder

      I think you make great points, and one not really mentioned by other posters: fun!  I would add that certain phrases, such as je ne sais quoin and deja vu have none, or only clunky translations.  The actual sound of such phrases in their native tongue is a big part of their pizazz.  And speaking of the musical quality, English is hardly the most melodic sounding language.  Thank God there is French, Italian and Spanish to name a few of the more symphonic dialects.

  • Andreas Ramos

    I’m fluent in four languages and I’m learning another language. I’ve lived in a bunch of countries. You can get only so far with your primary language. If you really want to know (and work with) people from another place, you must be able to speak with them. So, yes, learn languages. Don’t worry. The second one is difficult, the third is easier, and the fourth is very easy. 

  • Tom Devine

    Absolutely agree with you.  In my work as a teacher of academic writing, I am constantly reminded that American students who have not taken a foreign language have a very poor understanding of the structure of English, the distinction between slang and formal writing, the actual meaning of words and phrases, proper uses of prepositions, etc.  Goethe is supposed to have written or said “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen”: Those who do not know foreign languages, know nothing about their own.  My experience agrees with his.  As for Summers, though his statement is more nuanced than the headline, it’s sad to see a president of a great university take an economist’s view of the “investment” needed to learn a language.  Apparently he’s one of those who know the price of everything, the value of nothing.

    • Tom – You make an excellent point, and one that I didn’t consider. Learning a foreign language helps our understanding of the structure of English. Thanks for pointing that out, as it is really an important distinction. As for Mr. Summers, well, enough said… 😉

    • I also agree with you, Tom.  It’s amazing how much I’ve learned about English while trying to teach it to other people.  Not to mention when I’m trying to learn a new language myself.  I, back in the dark ages, actually WAS taught spelling, grammar and the difference between professional and un-professional language.  I admit that sometimes I am not very good at simplifying my English enough for others to understand it, but I try to be as clear as possible so I can be understood.

  • Fei Min Lorente

    I didn’t respond to this on the discussion group because I thought it was a joke. Of course most people in the world don’t speak English! The Dean of Arts from the University of Waterloo spoke to our chapter at our AGM last year, and he made the point that North Americans don’t make foreign languages as much a part of our education system as other parts of the world do, and it’s to our detriment. Primarily, we’re doing bad business deals as a result. Secondly, all the other people that have learned English can benefit from our websites, and we can’t benefit from theirs. For the full article, see 

  • Melissa Meyer

    When in Rome… Yet, I am not surprised regarding Mr. Summers ethnocentric stance. This is an attitude that permeates any dominating economic language. Soon, if all continues forward, many will be learning Mandarin to negotiate global contracts. I personally love language and feel sorry for those who cannot see beyond their own culture.

  • Andrey

    I’m fluent in three languages. For now I’m not going to take one more, but as a person involved in foreign language teaching I may say that English is rather spread. You may not speak as a native speaker, but you’ll be understood is you speak English. which is more, English is not just divided into American and British, there are also, Russian English, European English, Asian English and so one. So, one may say that we all speak English. And more and more people are realising the importance of English. 

  • Alejandra

    Well…I suggest Larry Summer to visit Brussels, ´”capital” of the European Union, and where if you dont speak at least 3 languages you are probably unemployed

  • Andreas Ramos

    I spent three weeks in Sichuan (China) this September. Just under 90m people live there. I met company directors, government officials, etc. None spoke English. 
    English is not the universal language there; it doesn’t even show up. 

  • Cate de Heer

    Take three words: wineglass, church, manager. Translate them into, say, French (to take the most recent world language before English). What you get is not three code words with meanings identical to the originals; you get overlapping but different sets of connotations that act as windows into the history of agriculture, sociology, religion, politics, economics, and more, and thus how and why French speakers think and act as they do. How can we have effective trade or diplomacy with people in other countries without such insight into who they are? If Ogilvy was right about the importance of knowing your customers, then Dr. Summers’ prediction seems woefully off track.

  • About the only positive thing about Dr. Summers’ comment is that he has publicly stated what a lot of people believe in private.  This gives us the opportunity to address it head on.  As you might guess, I disagree strongly with his conclusions.  And that is not surprising if you expose the mistakes in his premises.

    English is the global language.  Yes, But.  It is the modern lingua franca, so every educated person should speak it if they wish to have a common language with people who have a different native language.  Americans and Britons are blessed, but also cursed by speaking the world language as their mother tongue.  Dr. Summers is the poster child for this problem.  Most of the communication in this world in this world is not done at academic conferences or global meetings.  It is done in the shops and schools, cafes and homes where English is most certainly not spoken.  Fluency in a second language is great, and competency is very good, but even a rudimentary command of a language where you are visiting or doing business is useful and very much appreciated.  If you cannot say “thank you” in the native language, then you are not truly thankful.

    I could say more about the uses and misuses of simple English and the huge fallacy that machine translation has solved the language problem, but I have said enough for one post.  Suffice it to say that I hope that thinking and caring people will see the flaws in his thinking.

  • Allan Mutén

    A touch of humility would not
    hurt us a bit. It should be no news to anyone that our linguistically inhibited
    emissaries are sent abroad in hopes of attracting much appreciated foreign
    business to and for the U.S. rather than vice versa. Now is not the time for an attitude
    better suited to a half century ago.


    As for the pervasive business
    English that we hear abroad, it is often impressive and obviously quite useful to
    those who confidently left home with nothing more than their mother tongue but
    it has limitations as well. Yes, machine translation has its place as do shared
    languages at adequate levels. However, I fear that we strive toward a level of acceptable
    mediocrity in our English business language that is rife with opportunity for disaster
    all for the sake of expediency. As an American in Sweden, Svanberg-English comes
    to mind. A business-English that is “good” but not “excellent” where in commerce
    as in foreign relations and elsewhere, we should settle for nothing short of
    excellent communications. Appreciate the value of language. Invest in
    communications. Engage language professionals. Incidentally, the business
    languages that young students are encouraged to learn here: Arabic and Chinese.

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