Double speak

by Maria HARDING B.Eng (Hons), EDITOR

At the end of last year my husband (an oil pipeline engineer) told me that his career prospects would be considerably improved if he were to work in Paris. I choose to believe this is his only motivation although people purporting to be my friends have implied that, patient man though he is, even he needs some quiet time. The upshot of this arrangement is that I am spending more time than most enjoying the delights of Paris.

My French is, on a good day, abysmal, but I do keep trying and believe that this is the reason I am yet to encounter the famous rudeness of the Parisians. As a native Londoner it could be that I am immune to rude behaviour but I am inclined to believe the fault is mostly ours. For example you climb off the train at Gare du Nord find a taxi and declare your destination in clear English. You may get little more that a grunt in response but you will be helped with your luggage, get where you need to be, be told the fare in English and get a receipt when you ask for one (doubtlessly in English). If your French counterpart disembarks at the unfortunately named Waterloo, he will be unlikely to get any help with his luggage, will get very short shrift if only speaks to the taxi driver in French and fares and receipts will probably be dealt with in sign language. This is surely indicative of the British attitude to foreign languages. And in my husband’s French office, the contract language and that of most of his co-workers (wherever they are originally from) is English. But can we rely on English to remain the language of business?

At a conference hosted by the DTI on Export, Communication and Competitiveness, minister of trade, Lord Clinton Davis said, `The future of English as the language of business is far from certain. Chinese, Hindi and Arabic – alongside English – are likely to be world languages by 2050.’

That may seem like a long way off but already other cultural barriers are becoming apparent. In a DTI survey, one in five exporters said they had encountered cultural barriers and one in eight had experienced problems using British English as opposed to international English.

So maybe now is the time to take advantage of government supported initiatives like NatBLIS (the National Business Language Information Service) or LEXAS (Languages for Export Advisory Scheme). We can also expect to see more in the way of language engineering – speech recognition, speech synthesis, translation and text processing.

So brush the dust off of your linguaphone and retrieve your phrase book from the top of the bookcase – after all not everyone is as accommodating as the Parisians.