Since the end of the Second World War in 1945 English has increasingly become the international language of business. How did this come about? How did a language, that in 1500 was spoken by maybe 5 million people, on an island off the coast of Europe come to be the lingua franca of the twenty-first century. Today, between 1.5 and 1.7 billion speak English as a first or second language in countries spread all over the work, that is almost one quarter of the population of the planet. The real story of how English came to this position of dominance in one of geopolitics and economic power. The French language had long been dominant in international affairs until the 19th century and indeed it is still one of the most influential language in international diplomacy. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the truly global British empire grew and consolidated across the globe and encompassed areas of the world such as North America, South and East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Australia and Oceania. As the 20th century opened and Britain’s star began to wane after the First World War, the English speaking United States emerged as the new global superpower and after World War 2 left many parts of Europe and East Asia in ruins, American economic, cultural and military power became dominant on the world stage and along with it the English language.

While the Power Language Index (PLI) developed by INSEAD’s Kai L. Chan ranks English as the most influential language in the world today, there are still other languages that are highly relevant in a business sense and that will be important for businesses large and small that internationalize their business models and develop global supply chain relationships. The PLI looks to rank the global influence languages based on the following criteria

  • The ability to travel widely
  • The ability to earn a livelihood
  • The ability to communicate with others
  • The ability to acquire knowledge and consume media
  • The ability to engage in diplomacy

Based on these considerations, English is indisputably the most influential language in the world today and its score is twice as high as the second ranked language Mandarin Chinese. The other languages in order of global influence that make up the top ten most influential languages in the world are French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Hindi.

It is interesting to note that the projected top ten ranking of the PLI for the year 2050 includes the same 10 languages but with some winners and losers in terms of which languages are predicted to rise in the rankings or increase their influence scores and which are projected to descend in the rankings. English will continue to be the most influential language in 2050 but with the distance between it and Mandarin Chinese in second place narrowed somewhat. Spanish will have risen in the rankings to substitute French as the third most influential language, with French dropping back to fourth place. Likewise, Portuguese will have jumped from ninth to eighth position and Hindi from tenth to ninth having displaced Japanese from eighth position today to tenth in 2050. Arabic, Russian and German will maintain their relative ranking positions in fifth, sixth and seventh position. In short, English will remain dominant for the foreseeable future with Mandarin closing the gap a little. The biggest winners in relative terms will be Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi and Spanish and the losers will be French, Japanese, German and Russian.

Companies looking to expand their markets internationally would do well to note the languages of highest influence in the regions of the world in which they wish to do business, whether they are sourcing from the markets, selling into the markets or establishing operations in situ and they should build their corporate language strategies accordingly. Those companies that aspire to become truly global in all major regions of the world may need to develop corporate language strategies that encompass many, if not all, of these most influential world business languages.

© Patrick Daly 2018

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