Standard Englishes and World Englishes: Living with a Polymorph Business Language

By Gilsdorf, Jeanette | The Journal of Business Communication, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Standard Englishes and World Englishes: Living with a Polymorph Business Language


Gilsdorf, Jeanette, The Journal of Business Communication


Many who teach business communication observe gradual changes in Standard English. As do other languages, English changes through contact with other languages and through several other well-understood avenues of language evolution, such as compounding, adding affixes, functional shift, coinage, and so on. As the third millenium begins, new factors are converging to influence Standard English: U.S. work environments are becoming more richly intercultural, newcomers to the United States are increasing their fluency in English, and international business is using English increasingly as a global language of business. (Throughout these remarks, my perspective is that of a native-born Anglo-American speaker of English. Speakers of other Englishes will have different but comparable perspectives.)

Helping my English as Second Language (L2) students gradually master English, I've seen my practical understanding of L2 learning grow, along with my respect for the major language task these students have taken on. I've also sensed Americans' unmerited good luck that English has become the language of international business. Yet the internationality of English is to us a mixed blessing because of our presumptions about what comes with it. As Dennett says, "English may be the language of the global village but the villagers are far from agreement on what is good use of the language" (1992, p. 13). Many communicators mistakenly assume a commonality of understanding when both speakers use the same English words. We know that even two speakers born to the same language experience only approximate commonality of meaning; yet we routinely forget to compensate for that fact and end up with cases of bypassing. Internationally, the commonality of understanding can be far more sketchy, and the contextual issues much m ore complex, than most of us realize.

A truism says that staying with good Standard English will hold problems to a minimum. But what is Standard English, and what is the place of Standard English in teaching business communication in contexts that are more and mare international? How, as teachers, do we make our peace with the multiple, competing standards and values affecting what is "acceptable English"? These questions trouble us in part because business persons approve of others' use of English--or disparage it--depending on their view of what English is and what it's supposed to be used for. Most U.S. business persons say that they expect people who work for them to be highly competent in Standard English. It seems a simple issue to these business persons. To teachers it is far from simple.

This brief treatment cannot hope to show teachers how to satisfy all business persons' expectations but will explore some dimensions of our challenge. Some help is to be found in the works of the Association for Business Communication's (ABC) many scholars, both domestic and international, who have published important books and articles on international and intercultural communication for decades. They make increasing contributions to what we know of international business communication. The field is huge, containing a multiplicity of perspectives from which English for business can be studied. Some include descriptive linguistics, pragmatics, contrastive rhetorical analysis, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, social psychology of language, linguistic anthropology, speech act theory, and politics and activism. Psycholinguistics, for example, is the study of how languages are learned, remembered, and used, and of how linguistic variables influence human behavior. Pragmatics and speech act theory, especially politeness theory, are important lenses for studying English for business. Politics and activism need also to be kept in mind. The spread of English was contemporary with colonialism and domination, and not everyone's feelings toward it are neutral, let alone supportive.

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Standard Englishes and World Englishes: Living with a Polymorph Business Language
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