English the international marketing language
Growth spurred by globalization and the advent of the Net

In 1905, Polish philologist Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof published a guide to Esperanto, a new language he hoped would be adopted by the world community, so people of all countries could talk to, and understand each other.

He needn't have bothered. Despite some initial interest, Esperanto never really caught on. With the advent of globalization, it was English that increasingly evolved as the primary language of communications in everything from science, international relations, pop culture, and yes, marketing.

"You see English advertising in Europe, in every second television commercial," said Scott Goodson, president of Strawberry Frog, an Amsterdam based ad agency specializing in interactive branding. "Even in France, English is the accepted unofficial language of Europe."

Goodson's staff, who come from a dozen European countries, communicate with each other in English, the agency's Web-site is in English only, and they recently ran an English-language campaign for Tektronix color printers across all European markets.

The signs of English's ascent are everywhere. American cultural exports are leading the charge. Movies, and television programming, are broadcast in their original versions, with sub-titles added, in many European countries.

English's ubiquity has made it the language of choice for European businessmen trying to communicate with one another. "It is the language which connects businesses in Helsinki, to businesses in Madrid, Athens, Paris and London," said Goodson.

For example Merita-Nordbanken, recently created by a merger Swedish and Finnish firms, and now the largest bank in Scandinavia, adopted English as its official corporate language. The company did this, in spite of the fact that it was not the first language of either organization.

English has replaced French as the most common second language taught in European schools. In Germany, many states are adopting curriculums designed to make students bilingual in English and German.

Euro youth, are increasingly accepting that English is the key to their future. Being able to communicate is a saleable skill said Goodson. "(Knowing English) also does the job of distancing them from their parents, who don't speak the language."

While only about 375 million people speak English as a first language, when you add in those who use it as a second or third language, the number is closer to 1.5 billion. And the total is rising every day.

Leading the language's most recent charge is the Internet. According to a survey by Inktomi Corp., which recently mapped more than a billion documents on the Web, 86.55 per cent of those were in English, compared to only 2.36 per cent in French, the next most popular language on the Net.

All of the 10 most popular Web-sites, are in English, according to Advertising Age magazine. It should not be surprising that the ads on those sites reflect the language of their audience.

The spread of English is not confined to Europe. In Japan, before he left office earlier this year, ex-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, released a report that proposed English be made the country's second official language. The report concluded that for Japan to achieve world class excellence, all Japanese need to acquire a working knowledge of English.

This, in spite of the fact that English is already taught to all students in the public school system, and that English-language comprehension tests are in the process of being added to high-school entrance exams.

According to one author, the lack of English skills is destroying Japan, since the vague nature of the Japanese language allows people to hide their opinions. Use of English, a much more direct language would force more people to say what they think.

Probably the biggest threat English faces is from its own success. The speed at which it is being adopted in all areas of the world, has left no time for official uniform standards and usage guideline mechanisms to evolve. This is leading to the evolution of dialects, which if they evolve too far, could lead to those speaking them, becoming incomprehensible to one another.

For example the English spoken by the Euro-youth is an evolving form called Euro-speak, which according to Goodson is influenced by a fusion of youth culture, techno-music and late night clubbing along the Mediterranean.

There is of course some backlash against the rise of English, notably in France, where a recent proposal to force Air France pilots to speak English to air traffic controllers at Charles de Gaulle airport met with considerable resistance.

And of course here in Quebec, there is no shortage of fear mongers, bureaucrats and demographers ready to demonstrate the impending doom of the French language, a potential catastrophe, which justifies all kinds of government initiatives.

Goodson likens these Luddite measures to a 20th century nationalism in the age of the Internet, he said, speaking of that recent century as though it was medieval history.

These old-world concepts of the nation state are being consigned to cocktail trivia said Goodson. "(Although) they may still get some votes from disenfranchised groups, they will not affect how society develops."


E-mail can be sent to Peter Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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