Tsedal Neeley, Englishnization, and Official Languages

5 05 2012

Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School prof, has published a certain to be controversial article in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review that pretty much says that everyone in the world should learn to speak English, dammit. I’m oversimplify, but this is the thrust of her piece, in which she points out that companies as Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, and SAP have made English their official languages. Her argument is that for a country or a company to prosper in the global economy, they need to adopt the global lingua franca. 

The horrible term “Englishnization” come from Japan, where some large companies have recently adopted English as their official languages. Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing retailer, is one example: Uniqlo, interestingly enough, is a rare example of a Japanese fashion chain that has managed to become a global player, with stores in Europe and North America as well as Asia. The number one cheerleader for Englishnization is Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, which is the Japanese equivalent of eBay. Mikitani is a self-made entrepreneur whose whims are law at his company, which makes him somewhat unusual in Japan, where decision-making by committee is the norm. Mikitani’s English is probably pretty good, since he is a graduate of the Harvard Business School. Anyway, in early 2010, he decided that his company would henceforth operate in English. He decreed an English-only policy at Rakuten. It was introduced overnight. Workers arrived for work at the company and were confronted with English-only signs in the elevators and English-only menus in the cafeteria.

As The Economist’s “Johnson” blog points out, Englishnization can have a major negative consequence for employee morale: being forced to operate in a second language can sap the confidence of an employee instantly.   

I know that introducing an official language in a company isn’t the same as an official language in a nation-state. However, there are some parallels that organizational studies scholars should consider.

Canada has lots of experience on the effects of language policies and bilingualism on organizations. In the 1960s, a Royal Commission on bilingualism accumulated lots of social-scientific data on the theory and practice of bilingualism in organizations around the world. (For instance, they sent experts to study bilingualism in the Belgian post office and the South African military).

I suspect that Canadian academics, especially but not exclusively those in business schools, would have a lot to contribute to this debate about how official language policies can change organizations for the better and for the worse.  

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