The Demand for Professional Written English

By Peter Martin

In her post on this blog last week, Kirsten Winkler discussed how English has become a basic skill in today’s international business environment. “English is not an extra in your CV anymore, it is a must,” she wrote.

In Europe, as Kirsten attested, English has become the clear lingua franca. She said that she, a native German speaker currently living in France, routinely speaks in English with people from many countries—even from Germany—because it’s often easier for them to think in the English vocabulary in many fields of work or study. And while the language is far less dominant outside of North America and Europe, if there’s a global lingua franca, it’s also English. Only with English can you communicate with someone in every country on earth.

A May 2007 article in The New York Times, “Across cultures, English is the word,” makes the case that English is likely on its way toward even more global reach. The article quotes American linguist John McWhorter saying that, already, “English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before.” But more indicative of English’s future prospects are the structural factors that will make English even more important in the late 21st century than it is today.

Foremost among those is the internet. The internet was originally a product of the United States military, and most of its first programmers and users were, naturally, English speakers. Though today the whole word is connected to it, 80 percent of the data on the internet is still in English. Most of the largest and most innovative tech companies are based in the U.S., and though the European Union is 27 different countries with 23 different official languages, those 23 different languages mean that across Europe English is the first language of the tech community.

I mention all this to make my case for an important addition to Kirsten’s list of sub-areas of English teaching that will become more and more important in the years to come. My addition is writing—specifically clear, simple, effective correspondence.

For months I’ve taught classes at a company here in Colombia, an American web design and development firm with a Bogotá office. The company’s American staff is largely responsible for deal-making and direct participation in the American business world, while the Colombian office develops most of the actual content, designing and developing most of the products delivered to customers. You might assume that one or two translators in the Bogotá office could keep the company’s international communications between the U.S. and Colombia going smoothly, but I found that wasn’t the case.

Every one of my students wants to improve his of her writing skills. Like many Americans, they receive many emails a day, the majority of them in English, and many of them requiring responses. While everyone I’ve met at the office understands English well enough to make sense of short, basic written communication, many do not feel comfortable responding, since they don’t feel they can express themselves well enough in writing, or that, even if they get their ideas across, they’ll make an embarrassing number of mistakes.

So as I think about the most important English skills for non-native speakers to pick up over the next 10 or 50 years, writing stands out as the one that will only increase in importance. Sure, in the future there will be more international travel, and more international conference calls—which required good listening and speaking skills—but there will be much, much more emailing, and for people who interact with Europeans or North Americans, simple but effective professional written English will become a critical element of doing business.

Or so I think. Have you had experiences that make you think like me? Or am I exaggerating how necessary it will be to conduct business, in English, through email, in the future?


Leave a Comment ↓

  1. Peter Martin says:

    Oct 05, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I totally agree, Sarah, that many native English speakers write very badly. One thing I recognize as funny is that, if my students write as well as I try to get them to, they’ll write much better than most Americans! (I can’t speak about Canadians, British, Australians, or native speakers from other countries.)

  2. Sarah says:

    Oct 05, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I agree that written English has more importance in the wake of the internet and the increased communication by email. However, I know some people who would much prefer contact in their non-native language by email than by telephone, for example, because constructing an email gives you the time to think about what you are writing and the chance to get it right before opening your mouth and letting mistakes run away with you.

    Another point is that there are a lot of native English speakers who need a great deal of help in writing emails in a proper and grammatically correct way! The lack of use of capital letters to start a sentence and other basic punctuation really bothers (and offends!) me when I receive emails. I am keen to uphold the email as a replacement to the formal letter, not a chance to use text speak and slack off with the grammar.

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