01 May 2004
Hoisted on petard of language
By Donald A. DePalma
Twenty-three years ago I sat at a rickety table with friends in a small hut high on a mountain in what was then eastern Czechoslovakia. While we talked, we surfed the shortwaves for background music, when we stopped to hear someone ask the BBC what it meant "to be hoisted on one's own petard."
We paused to hear what a "petard" was. The BBC host explained the phrase came from act 3 of Hamlet: "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his owne petar." Shakespeare's engineer was a sapper, the one that set an explosive charge (a petard) meant to breach a wall or gate. Sometimes the sappers didn't exit stage-left in time, so they ended up thrown into the air by the force of the explosion. The blast had unintended consequences, leading to today's metaphorical usage of actions backfiring on the perpetrator.
In today's debate about the migration of jobs to low-wage countries, I often think Americans have hoisted themselves upon twin petards of language and job protectionism. How did we get to this point?
Everybody speaks English. For decades we have not met the linguistic needs of other markets, instead asking them to learn English. International companies and many professions do business in English. Thumb through the business directories of cities around the world to find dozens of small institutes teaching English to those who don't already speak it. Look at products exported by U.S. companies with nary a bit of foreign-language packaging or documentation. Our analysis of the Web sites of the top 25 companies in a dozen leading non-Anglophone companies found 89.1% of them offered English content to visitors. While we expect everyone to speak English to buy our products, these foreign companies very happily sell to us in our most comfortable language.
We simplify English so anyone can use it. We strive to make it easier for anyone with limited proficiency in English to write better English. Controlled English reduces language to its bare bones and reduces ambiguity via a restrictive vocabulary and limited grammar. For example, the European Association of Aerospace Industries caters to the reality of the aviation world with a standardized version of English required by Airbus and Boeing. This unbending approach to "just the facts, ma'am" enables nonnative speakers to write a limited but understandable English, thus accelerating the emigration of technical manuals and user's guides to low-wage countries.
We create English-like programming languages with tidy grammars. The pidgin English of programming lets Java programmers around the world command "System.out.println ("Hello, world")." It doesn't take many English words or a grasp of sophisticated grammar to create complex business applications.
We educate everyone about our culture with the Simpsons and the Sopranos. When the rest of the world watches dubbed TV shows and films, they learn much about how Americans think, react, and play.
We show limited interest in other languages. A 2002 study by the Modern Language Association trumpeted the "greatest-ever variety of languages being taught," large increases in the study of Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, and American Sign Language, and the fact that 8.7% of American students now study foreign languages.
We try to exclude foreign workers. As one antiforeigner Web site puts it, "the H-1B visa program allows American companies and universities to import foreign scientists, engineers, and programmers. Unfortunately, it has no serious safeguards to protect American workers from being replaced and is abused to provide cheap foreign labor." Concerned with foreigners taking high-tech jobs, demands to cut back on H-1B and other work visas will certainly discourage foreigners from taking American jobs in the U.S., but those actions will not keep those jobs in America. Companies with specific needs will take the jobs to where they can get them filled properly.
What will it take to change mainstream America's monogamous affair with English?
Unless more business and organizations other than the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency begin hiring graduates proficient in other languages, the U.S. will continue to be the butt of that old joke: If you speak three languages, you're trilingual. If you speak two, you're bilingual. But if you speak just one language, you're American.
Behind the byline
Donald A. DePalma, Ph.D., is the founder of research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory and author of Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (866) 510-6101.
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