Whose English is it anyway?

We’ve been doing lots of training in Europe recently, trying to get a big professional services firm to make their documents easier (and quicker) to read.

One aspect of it, as you might expect from us, is using more everyday language, rather than the rather formal style they default to. And while most people agree with the approach themselves, they worry about how it’ll go down with other people. Will they think it’s ‘proper’? Is it ‘professional’ enough?

Now, these are worries we hear a lot, even in the UK. But working with so many non-native speakers has thrown up another challenge. One chap in Madrid summed it up nicely: ‘If a Spanish client of ours got this new document from our London office, they would think it was cool and modern. If they got it from our Madrid office, they might think we couldn’t speak English.’

It made me think of a problem the EU now has. When translating documents into English, they have to decide whether to use British English, or a more ‘international English’ – not one native speakers really use, but one that’s easier to understand as a business lingua franca for people who’ve learned English as a second language.

It gives us natives an interesting dilemma. Being brought up Anglophone gives us an amazing competitive advantage, without even trying. But the success of English also means we’re having to accept that it’s not ‘ours’ any more, and that the perceptions of an army of converts might be more important than our own intuition.

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