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Why the English language might be our best weapon in a post-Brexit world

There is one jewel we possess that is often overlooked

Chris Blackhurst
Saturday 11 November 2017 12:55 GMT
Two billion people speak the English language, a quarter of whom are native speakers
Two billion people speak the English language, a quarter of whom are native speakers (Getty)

Little noticed amid the political turmoil, the Government has begun the legal process to establish a post-Brexit Britain as a standalone economy.

It’s the firmest sign yet of the seeming inexorability of Brexit, that business is heading towards a very different future, regardless of whether the exit is soft or hard. We’ve had plenty of speculation about the ramifications, with chat galore about how many bankers may leave, where they could be heading, the impact on property values, and the prospect of lorries queuing at Dover.

While that, and more, remains uncertain, the introduction of the Trade Bill is the first tangible step on that path. With it comes a hardening of planning, and in some quarters, a darkening of mood.

The Department for International Trade says the bill will help to allow the UK to become an “independent global trading nation”. International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox maintains Brexit will be made successful by the UK seeking a special relationship with the EU, and “by boosting our existing trading relationships with old partners, while opening up access to new and exciting markets across the world”.

The Trade Bill will enable the UK to implement over 40 existing trade agreements between the EU and other countries; allow UK companies continued access to £1.3 trillion worth of government contracts; guard against unfair trade practices; and ensure the UK Government has the legal ability to gather and share trade information.

Another bill, on tariffs, will follow shortly.

The proposed legislation only deals with the mechanics, however. It’s very easy, reading it, to be swamped with gloom, to wonder how this newly isolated UK can really hope to pick up from where the comfort blanket afforded by membership of the EU left off.

We’ve got some appealing assets. Our legal system, transparency of public administration, and education are popularly cited as winning over foreign trading partners. We lead, or we’re placed among the leaders, in fintech, pharma, bio-tech, financial services, and the creative industries.

There is though, one jewel we possess that is often overlooked. English. Across the world, 2 billion people are using the English language. Of those, about a quarter, or 500 million, are native English speakers – those for whom English is their first language. The rest have to learn it. And learn it they do.

There may be more native Mandarin speakers than there are native English speakers, but 350 million of the former are also learning English. No other tongue has the same draw, no other language has the same global positioning.

And it’s ours. This was brought home at an event last week aimed at foreign investors. When they were being asked what they liked about doing business in Britain the one aspect upon which they could all agree was English.

Without realising it, we’re sitting on gold. God forbid, if we were Bulgaria or Hungary departing the EU, what then?

A language that evolved down the centuries has become the universal method of communication for business. But not just commerce: science, medicine and the internet, too. This leads to the telling statistic that of the current total of web pages, the majority are in English, when by rights, based on the native English-speaking population, it should be a tiny fraction. Of the 10 million most visited websites, more than 50 per cent are in English. The most used language on the internet is also English: 952 million users have English as their main language online; the next most widely-used is Chinese, with 763 million users, and Spanish, with 293 million.

EU chief negotiator: UK has two weeks to agree Brexit 'divorce' bill or no trade talks this year

What does this amount to? An enormous advantage and huge opportunity. Proficiency in English is equated around the globe with access to knowledge, with research and development, innovation and investment.

There is an argument that says our own strength in English is our undoing, that we do not see the need to learn other languages, that linguistically we lag far behind the likes of Finland, Holland and France, that we excel in what is the world’s most common second language.

The danger with this approach is that we become mired in our own narrow sphere, we’re not open to new ideas and thought, we don’t really understand what others are thinking, and we retreat into an Anglo-bunker built on past glories. It is also true that trading partners would respect us more if we addressed them in their first language rather than rely on them to become proficient in a second.

There’s no reason, though, why one has to exclude the other. We’re good at English, it’s what we do, who we are. It’s in our DNA. But we can still learn foreign languages, while maintaining and nurturing our given hegemony in English.

However multilingual we are though, we will never be as good as we are at English. Neither do foreigners expect or want us to be. We should wake up. English is our greatest natural resource. We should thank our lucky stars we have it, and we must exploit it and sell it.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of ‘The Independent’, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm

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