This year I am celebrating twenty years as a conference interpreter. When I look back on my career so far, one trend in particular stands out: More and more international conferences and meetings are being held in English, without interpreters – even when only a minority (or none!) of the speakers and attendees are English native speakers.
The decision to use English as a lingua franca is mostly driven by the desire to save costs. But does it pay off? After all, there are a number of factors to be taken into account.
While native speakers are able to draw on the full repertoire of their native language, non-native speakers are usually linguistically limited. Many Germans have a good command of English – 62.35% of them, according to the EF English Proficiency Index – but their ability is usually a long way off that of a native speaker. An educated native English speaker has an active vocabulary of 10,000 words; German pupils taking their school leaving exams are expected to know around 3,000 English words. And while Germany nonetheless comes in ninth in the EF English Proficiency Index, France is ranked 32nd. This means that for a diverse international audience in particular, we have to assume a relatively low level of ability – what we might call “bad simple English”.
The level of someone’s linguistic expression is often equated with that person’s general competence. I have seen speakers who are celebrated in their field utterly embarrass themselves because they found themselves lost for words and started to stammer.
Less noticeable are situations – especially when answering questions – where speakers don’t share everything they know, simply because they lack the linguistic tools to do so.
Everything that adds colour to a talk and makes it more entertaining, such as wordplay and a varied range of expressions, is significantly reduced in a foreign language. The talk comes across as dry. And anyone who finds public speaking nerve-racking enough as it is, will hardly be reassured by the prospect of doing it in a foreign language.
Even for an audience with a relatively good command of English as a foreign language, listening to talks in English will be more of a challenge. Someone who learnt English as a foreign language in the US will likely have problems understanding a Scottish speaker – and that’s without taking into account the broad spectrum of non-native accents such as Greek, Italian or Danish, which will be encountered in any international group of speakers.
In addition to tricky accents, grammatical mistakes typical to native speakers of a particular language are often confusing for speakers of other languages, making it harder still for them to understand.
Thus, when a non-native speaker uses English to address an audience made up of other non-native speakers, the level of mutual understanding can be extremely low.
An entirely different problem arises when a native speaker of English addresses an audience drawn from non-English-speaking countries. The diverse range of accents in English – spanning from India to the American South – paired with complex sentence structures, a vast vocabulary (English has twice as many words as German!) and usually rapid speech creates an enormous barrier to understanding. I have seen more than a few German audiences who are perfectly able to follow along when German speakers address them in English, but reach for their headsets to let the interpreters take over as soon as a British speaker opens their mouth.
Listeners who are able to follow a talk in English may not necessarily have the confidence to ask questions in the language. Particularly at events which aim to create dialogue, this can cause proceedings to drag somewhat.
Using English as a lingua franca results in a less successful transfer of knowledge. This has been confirmed by a study at the University of Vienna, which found significant differences in how much content is successfully conveyed depending on whether communication takes place in speaker and listener’s native language or in non-native English.
Anyone who has ever had to communicate in a foreign language for a whole day knows how exhausting it is. The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has researched this phenomenon and found that understanding the same amount of input requires significantly more resources when it is in the listener’s second language. According to the researchers, this is because “grammatical processing operations are not automated in non-native speakers”. This naturally leads us to ask how conference organisers’ interests are served if attendees can barely make it to the lunch break before they are too tired to take anything else in.
As well as the transfer of knowledge, other levels of communication also suffer. At events which aim to reach people on an emotional level, such as sales events or training courses, using English as a lingua franca should equally be regarded with scepticism. As the German newspaper Die Zeit reports, “our native language has a deeper emotional resonance … Its words trigger stronger emotional reactions in us”.
Something else which is often overlooked is the low-level friction generated by cultural differences, for example when a German speaking English uses “please”, “would you” and “could you” less often than their British counterpart would consider polite.
Even at the preparation stage, when a conference is being publicised, choosing to use English as a lingua franca has a significant impact. Limiting communication to English means limiting the pool of potential speakers and attendees. Requiring speakers to present in English makes language competence – rather than competence in their field – the deciding factor in the selection process.
Allowing participants to use their native language is, aside from anything else, a gesture of good will and consideration. The Goethe Institute website has this to say on the subject: “It is in the interest of every speaker, whether native or non-native, for their language to be used in as many situations as possible. This is the basis of its value as a tool for communication and understanding and as a professional asset.” Conference attendees from Italy, Spain and France will certainly feel much more welcome at an event if they are addressed in Italian, Spanish and French than if they are reduced to English.
Time and time again, I have heard organisers argue that a truly multilingual conference using interpreters simply costs too much.
But when we consider how much more successful a conference can be when the most qualified speakers appear, the pool of potential attendees is not restricted by language barriers, no time is lost to linguistic misunderstandings, all of the content is conveyed in full and the desired emotional impact is achieved, it rapidly becomes clear that interpreters are a worthwhile investment.