English is international business language — most of the time

As I have written about in this column over the years, I have been fortunate to do some teaching and administrative work in countries outside the U.S. while working at Tiffin University. People often ask me if I am fluent in the languages spoken in these other countries. I am not.

Most of the rest of world speaks English. It is the unofficial language of international business. Most countries have street signs, menus and other public communication in the local language and English.

One exception to this is Madrid, Spain. Madrid is a great place except for one issue — most people there don’t speak much, if any, English. How could people in such a modern Western European country speak so little English?

While recently teaching as a guest faculty member at a university in Madrid, students and colleagues explained the lack of English. First, Spanish is a well-known language and many people who visit Madrid know some Spanish.

There also is a cultural battle going on around the world. When countries participate in the world markets, the expectation is people there will speak English. To some, this an assault on the local culture, which includes language. Language is connected to culture. A reduction of the use of a native language is seen as an erosion of the culture.

People in most countries do not expect visitors to master their language, but it is appreciated if they know a few phrases. Learning to say “hello,” “thank you” and “pardon me” is plenty in most countries. One of the problems for most Americans is that even when they learn a language, they do not typically have many opportunities to use it.

My niece Madeleine Winer, who now is a senior editor for an automotive magazine in Akron, is a great example of this. She took Spanish classes throughout grade school, high school and college without many opportunities to use the language outside of frequenting local Mexican restaurants. In contrast, she found Spain as the perfect place to sharpen her Spanish, because few there spoke English.

“Studying in Madrid definitely helped me become more fluent,” she said. “It forced me to use my Spanish in everyday conversation and to get where I needed to be. It also enhanced my listening skills — especially when asking for directions.

“I remember when my sister visited me and she was shocked at how many people didn’t know or didn’t speak English. Sometimes, it was a game of charades to communicate what you wanted.”

In a recent interview, former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted to not knowing much English.

Most countries now have McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway and other U.S. fast food restaurants. While this might be convenient for tourists and locals who want fast food, it often is referred to as the “McDonaldization” of their cultures. And that is not meant in a good way.

This has led to the slow food movement in Europe. Slow Food International is a Spanish based group that opposes the Westernization of food and culture.

According its website, “Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast food and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.”

So for those who are considering doing business or just traveling to other parts of the world you do not need to know much of the host country’s language — except maybe for Spain.

Perry Haan is professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Tiffin University. He can be reached at (419) 618-2867.