By ANDREW LAU
Fact. The undisputed language champion of the business world is English. It’s embedded in businesses’ culture, vision, missions, processes, organisational structure, communications, systems and supply chain.
There’s simply no escape from it. The English language itself has been unchallenged for hundreds of years and will continue to be the primary language in business for many more.
The emergence of Mandarin through the vast population of China is ironically helping to fuel the growth of English as the Chinese government is pushing mastery of the latter.
Malaysia is one of the many countries that is pushing for the same mastery. While it is important to note that the mastery of English is critical to compete in a globalised and interconnected business world, should it be done at the expense of other languages or dialects?
In worrying scenes across major capitals of the world, children are becoming increasingly monolingual in the pursuit of English.
Students study, take extra classes, sit for exams, watch TV, browse the web, use social media, listen to music and converse with people using English.
Other languages especially dialects are dying an increasingly fast death. We don’t have to imagine very far as we witness children in urban areas all over the world leading the way of monolingualism by speaking only English.
While everyone makes the case for English, let me make a case for languages that may not garner as much attention.
English the language of creativity?
As innovation becomes the key differentiator in businesses, creative thinkers are highly sought after. How much does language contribute to the creativity of a person’s mind?
It is a widely known fact that logic is attributed to the left hemisphere of our brains while creativity is attributed to the right hemisphere. It is also known that the left hemisphere of our brains control the right side of our bodies and vice versa.
This physiological uniqueness makes our brain contralateral. When we raise our left hand, the right hemisphere of the brain commands it. This is contra lateralisation at work.
Here’s where it becomes interesting. Contra lateralisation does not only work when we kick a ball or grip something, but also when we move our heads and our eyes.
Turn your head slowly to the left – the right side of your brain steered it. Now turn your head to the right – the left side of the brain steered it.
Let’s think of another activity that has the same effect. Here’s a hint, you are doing it right now. As you read, your eyes are moving from left to right.
In western languages, writing and reading involves the motion of left to right – therefore making the brain’s right (logical) hemisphere dominant.
In certain languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Mandarin; the languages are written from right to left – therefore making the brain’s left (creative) hemisphere dominant.
With language determined by which hemisphere of the brain is being used – a right hemisphere-trained mind is highly likely to be more creative due to daily practice.
As such, it is no surprise that many early scientific and artistic discoveries were made by the Arabs, the Jews and the Chinese in ancient times.
English a better cognitive thinking language?
The other highly prized way of thinking in the business world is cognitive thinking. Cognitive thinking skills are routinely used in breaking down and solving complex business problems. So which language contributes more to cognitive thinking?
Studies have found that the left (logical) hemisphere of the brain specialises in text while the right (creative) hemisphere specialises in context.
English as a language is about text. A word usually carries a singular meaning. Bringing languages such as Tamil, Mandarin, Hebrew and Arabic into play opens up new possibilities. In these languages, a single word brings multiple meanings according to the tonality in which it is pronounced.
In a sense, the other languages have deeper “musicality” embedded in both speaking and writing compared to English.
This provides a more complex structure of language, which also stimulates the right side of the brain, thus requiring deeper understanding and cognitive thinking. This is where the other languages once again gain an advantage over English.
United monolingual vs diversified multilingual?
If the language of business is English, why is there a need for other languages? While some people may point towards the need to serve different markets, there is a more fundamental and important reason.
To know the reason, we need to ask this question. Why is diversity at the workplace valued? We hear that diversity of culture is important for organisational growth, but why?
To answer this, we need to look into biodiversity. Within a species of plant, there are many different sub-species.
Take, for example, the humble corn. While corn looks pretty similar for the most part, in 1903 we had 307 types of corn.
By 1983, we only had 12 species left. This startling data by the United States (US) National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation raised important questions.
While a lot of the different types of crops were wiped out due to extinction, there is a new man-made threat.
As plant diseases become more prevalent, genetically modifying crops to withstand diseases has become an acceptable practice in agriculture.
Such super crops are called Genetically Modified (GM) Crops. While GM Crops are more resistant, they have also narrowed the diversity, and more plant DNAs within the species become identical.
What scientists were not prepared for was the side effect of GM Crops. As diseases evolve, a single efficient attack can kill off an entire species due to the lack of diversity.
Such an attack would have only affected certain types of crops before they were genetically modified.
Now, coming back to languages. Language is deeply rooted in the culture in which it was formed. Think about it – expressions, quotes, idioms, context and vocabulary are unique to each language.
All of these came from the way of life or culture of the people. As the culture grew, so did the language. A language is an outward reflection of a particular culture.
If there is diversity of languages in the workplace, then there is diversity of culture.
Using the analogy of biodiversity, the more diversified culture is in the workplace, the more resilient the business is to negative shifts in the environment.
In short, having a diversified culture through different languages ensures that a business is better equipped to survive.
Here’s the bonus. While having a single language might denote a unified culture, having two languages in the workplace does not denote two diversified cultures.
Instead, it denotes three cultures – two from the native languages and one that is a hybrid of the two native cultures. Having many languages does not just signify an addition, but a multiplier effect.
It is often said that people are the biggest asset of a company. However, allow me to paraphrase that – people who are of different languages and cultures form the biggest asset of a company.
In languages and cultures lie the business differentiator. As such, languages do not only ensure the survival of an organisation, it also gives the organisation a big edge to win.
My two cents
While I continue to advocate mastery of the English language in the business world, it must not be at the expense of other languages.
The push towards “monolingualism” (whether intended or not) is bringing us down the path whereby firstly we begin to lose our language, followed by our culture and then our identity.
In Malaysia, we live in a diverse culture with many different languages and dialects – it is my hope that we embrace that and be proud of our unique heritage.