Instant English

Just 500 words to keep your business afloat

Suzi Jenkins
June 17, 2010

When, in the mid 1980s, I applied to university to read business studies, I was persuaded by the literature at the time that the English language was dead, about to be replaced by German, Spanish or French. If I was not fluent in at least two modern European languages by the time I graduated, I would never be able to compete with the multilingual continental European graduates, as we were told, and my career would be over before it had even begun. I was taught that English would not be the single language of world commerce. So, I changed my degree course. Well, once upon a time, some people swore that the earth was flat.


Despite the strong emergent international markets, the English language is still dominant. Whether you are dealing with businesses in China, Russia or India, if you can't speak their language, you will be speaking English! A basic universal vocabulary of about 500 words plus the technical jargon unique to your particular industry will help get you a signed contract. More refined English language skills may be useful in dealing with mother-tongue nationals from American, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa and will help establish an ongoing relationship. But if both parties speak English as a second language, just 500 words mean hitting a home run!


How does this rule apply in Italy, and more specifically, in Tuscany? Italian is one of those wonderful Romance languages that is useful for business. Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Catalan: you can get by in all of these languages if you speak at least one of them. But these languages have little mileage in many countries. Once you venture outside Europe or South America, you simply cannot communicate without English.


Historically, Tuscany was the epicentre of the Grand Tour, and the bond between English-speaking countries and Tuscany is still very strong. If we consider also the enormous American and Anglo-speaking presence in Florence through both tourism and the many university programs, which bring both students and staff to town, the Anglo expat community represents an impressive head count in the local territory. However, many of these expats never come to grips with the Italian language, and despite the presence of English speakers en masse, Tuscans also have not gotten the hang of English.


World War II did not help the situation. With Mussolini's being at odds with the British and U.S. governments, the schools taught French as the compulsory second language; the switch to English is relatively recent. And unlike many other European countries, Italy prefers its foreign-language films (mostly American, of course) dubbed into Italian. University texts are exclusively in Italian (if it's not available in Italian, you might not get to read it), and university courses are all run in Italian. Here in Tuscany, we continue to be stunned by the linguistic competence of other nations: the Danes study their university texts in the original language, English; Albanian migrants often arrive in Italy with perfect Italian (they receive Italian TV across the Adriatic sea); and the Swiss adopted as an official national language the language of any country that shares a border. 


Yet for businesses, English is necessary not only for talking to foreign clients and suppliers, but for attending foreign trade fairs, keeping up to date in a specific sector, reading instruction manuals for the latest gadget, asking Google for help using Google Analytics, complaining about unfair anti-spam software that blocks newsletters, taking part in international forums and chats-the list is endless. Formal language lessons are hard and time consuming. The local business community is finding alternative methods to get up to speed, such as hiring English-speaking business consultants, attending English-language webinars, chatting on Skype to anyone who will listen and even organising business events in English. It's brutal, but it's fast. Grammar is shot to hell, but messages get across and contracts are signed. And at the end of the day, that's the bottom line!


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