Challenges for Internationalization. The Role of English as a Lingua Franca in the Corporate Environment

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

38 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction: Rakuten’s English policy – a bold but rewarding move

2 Definition of the term “Lingua Franca”
2.1 Historical use
2.2 Recent use

3 Historical Aspects: The development of English into the world-wide Lingua Franca
3.1 Reasons for English becoming the “World Language”
3.2 Geographic spreading of English proficiency
3.3 Comparison: Recent Statistics vs. 1999 Statistics

4 Opportunities of English as a Lingua Franca
4.1 Opportunities within the enterprise itself
4.2 Opportunities for the enterprise in a global context

5 Risks of English as a Lingua Franca
5.1 Risks within the enterprise itself
5.2 Risks for the enterprise in a global context

6 Resulting Challenges
6.1 Assessment of skills: different types of tests
6.1.1 TOEIC
6.1.2 BULATS
6.1.3 Comparison
6.2 Training of employees
6.3 Establishing the use of English as Lingua Franca

7 Conclusions

8 Prospects for the future of English as the World Language



List of Illustrations

Figure 1: Geographic spread of English dialects

Figure 2: Countries where English is an official or the predominant language

Figure 3: Individuals using the Internet per 100 persons

Figure 4: Top ten reasons for outsourcing as surveyed by the 2004 Outsourcing World Summit

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1 Introduction: Rakuten’s English policy – a bold but rewarding move

In today’s world globalization plays a major role in every aspect of our lives: fashion, food technology, science and especially economy. It has a great impact not only on where we do business, but also on how and with whom we do business. In order to keep up with the ongoing globalization trend and to gain advantage over competitors, some enterprises take more drastic steps than others.

For instance, the Japanese e-commerce firm Rakuten Inc., which is among the world’s top ten online retailers[1], announced in July 2010 that English will henceforth be the official language within the company.[2] Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten threatened that any corporate officers are not proficient in English in two years’ time will be fired.[3] To evaluate their language skills, every employee has to take the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) test, which is a common standard for Japanese businesses to assess language skills, on regular basis.[4] Furthermore, employees are obligated to hold all executive meetings as well as compose every internal document in the new corporate language.[5] Within the company, this radical approach is called “Englishnization”. Mikitani’s motivation to take such measures is easily comprehensible: in order to be able to successfully do business internationally, employees need to be able to communicate with colleagues and clients all over the world. This will only work effectively if they can do so themselves and do not have to rely on translators or other employees’ language skills. To accomplish this, Rakuten invests in training, additional time for studying and a reward system.[6] Nevertheless, the media and business world were very critical of Rakuten’s new policy: they feared that the communication within the enterprise would be impaired and that employees would greatly dislike and boycott the new policy, especially when it came to speaking English to other Japanese native speakers, with whom they would usually communicate in their mother tongue. According to one of Rakuten’s managers, these fears were without foundation: he reported that some employees felt a slight uneasiness about speaking English, but that the staff was ready to take on the challenge.[7]

In 2012, two years after this bold move, Mikitani’s efforts seem to have paid off: Rakuten reported that about 79% of documents, meetings and internal communications were thus far in English.[8] Due to the increased English language proficiency among the employees, the company now has a wider range of talents to choose from when hiring new staff, since applicants are no longer required to be fluent in Japanese. In fact, half of the senior executive in Rakuten’s engineering department are non-Japanese and do not even speak the language.[9] This enables Rakuten to stay a serious competitor in the fiercely contested online retail market, where English has been the main language of communication or so called “Lingua Franca” for a long time. Quite positively, the “Englishnization” program has animated employees to get even more involved in learning English.[10]

Seeing Rakuten’s success with its language policy raises questions on how English as a corporate language can aid or hinder the development and prospering of a business. This bachelor thesis aims to evaluate the opportunities and risks that the use of English as a common language within an enterprise poses. It addresses the resulting challenges and offers possible ways to approach these. In particular, the need to assess employees’ language proficiency will be examined more in depth: two popular language tests, the TOEIC and the BULATS test, will be introduced and compared in order to appraise their value to company that plans to intensify the corporate use of English. Also, the specific challenges that arise regarding the training of employees will be explained in detail, as well as those in establishing the use of English in the enterprise. Furthermore, this thesis intends to give insight on the definition of the term “Lingua Franca” in former times as well as its modern usage. To enhance the understandability of why it is English that is chosen as the universal language, the history of the language is briefly described. Finally, from the entirety of investigations, conclusions on the choice of English as company language shall be drawn, and an outlook on the possible future of English as the World Language shall be given.

2 Definition of the term “Lingua Franca”

The term “Lingua Franca” has developed and changed its purport over time, so it is important to consider its historical and recent meaning before defining its signification in the given context.

2.1 Historical use

Historically, “Lingua Franca” described a commercial pidgin-language based on Romanic languages, which developed through language contact of Romans and speakers of non-roman-based languages. It was commonly used in the Mediterranean Basin during the time period between the 11th and the 19th century for communication between Western Christians and Arabic Muslims. The wording “franca” came from the name “Franks” for all Western Europeans, making the “Lingua Franca” “a synonym for "the language of the Western Europeans." “[11] It should be noted that the “Lingua Franca” has never been the native language of any ethnic community. Its use has always been confined to being a means of communication with a foreign people.[12]

2.2 Recent use

Today, “Lingua Franca” has the meaning of a language that is used to communicate by people who do not speak the same native language, but which is a third language that all involved parties have sufficient command of to communicate .[13]

The European Commission defines “Lingua Franca” as

“a vehicular language which allows inter-comprehension among people speaking different mother tongues, as a neutral language or jargon of which nobody can claim ownership, but also as the mother tongue of one of the parties in the exchange.“[14]

The origin of the modern definition is clear: the application of the term to only one particular language that fulfilled the use of a common means of communication has been conveyed to a multitude of languages, which may fulfill the same purpose, and which can also be the native language of a group of people.

In this thesis, the role of the English language as such a vehicular language is examined in general and in business context in particular.

3 Historical Aspects: The development of English into the world-wide Lingua Franca

The English language is nowadays the most widespread language, with about 25% of world’s population having at least some ability in speaking English. It is the first time in history that a language has globally reached such importance. English has risen to become the main language of the internet, with about 80% of all contents available online in English language.[15]

The following two sections investigate the reasons as to why English in particular has become the “World Language” and how it has spread geographically over time. To underpin and demonstrate the impressive gain speakers in the times of the Internet, the third section in this chapter examines statistics from the 1990’s and compares them to recent ones.

3.1 Reasons for English becoming the “World Language”

Initially, the English language developed out of Germanic dialects that were carried to the British Isle in the fifth century by settlers coming from the areas that are nowadays the Netherlands, parts of Germany and Denmark.[16] It evolved from the Old English into Modern English that is used today, whose beginnings roughly date back to the early 16th to 17th century.[17]

Beginning in the late 15th century, the first ambitions to establish overseas trade were driven by the interest in spices from the Orient, which were very valuable due to their capability to improve foods’ taste and increase its shelf life. The goal was to find a North-West passage to the Orient. However, these first attempts failed.[18] After the following period in which England had more interest in intra-European affairs, the enthusiasm for exploration and long-distance trade resparked in the second half of the 16th century.[19] The ensuing extensive period of colonialism in the 17th and 18th century carried the English language across the world. In the 18th and 19th century, the time of the industrial revolution, the spread was continued due to the fact that England was the leading nation in industrialization. In the late 19th and the 20th century, new drive was added to the distribution of the language as the USA became the preeminent economic power in world.[20]

These effects have laid the foundation for English becoming a global lingua franca. Being already predominant due to the mentioned events, it is comprehensible that when technological progress offered new, effective possibilities in international communication and globalization advanced English emerged as the global lingua franca, since it was already common in many parts of the world.[21] Furthermore, in the age of the electronic revolution that brought computers and the internet, the USA were leading in these developments. This imposed the use of English and its linguistic patterns upon users across the globe.[22]

The sum of all these factors has led to English becoming the globally most widespread language, with about 375 million native speakers, 375 million speakers of English as second language and 750 million speakers of English as a foreign language.[23]

3.2 Geographic spreading of English proficiency

The geographic spread of the English language widely coincides with the progress of English exploration and colonialism over time and has brought forth a multitude of local dialects of the language.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Geographic spread of English dialects

After coming to existence as a language in the territory of the British Isle, the use of the English language expanded to southern Ireland and south-west Scotland in the Middle Ages. With the English settlements in North America, the Caribbean and Northern Ireland, the language was spread there in the 17th and 18th century. It dilated even further to the Australasian area and Africa in the 18th and 19th century.[24]

Taking a look at where English is used as an official language by the state or the predominantly used language, one will notice that the aforementioned regions which are former colonies or dependencies of the United Kingdom are making up a great part of these nations.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Countries where English is an official or the predominant language

Apart from being widespread as a first and official language, English is also “the language most widely taught as a foreign language--in over 100 countries, such as China, Russia, Germany, Spain, Egypt, and Brazil--and in most of these countries it is emerging as the chief foreign language to be encountered in schools”.[25]

In combination the regions where English is the predominant language and all countries where it is taught as a foreign language in schools establish the all-encompassing global presence of the English language.

3.3 Comparison: Recent Statistics vs. 1999 Statistics

As we have previously observed, the most recent influential event on English language distribution has been the development of computers and the Internet, which emerged from the ARPANET that was created in 1969.[26] The first real webpage of the World Wide Web, published by CERN emerged in 1991[27]. Starting with that single page, the internet spread across the globe and with it the English language.

To assess the impact that the internet has had on the popularity and distribution of English, this section will examine Internet usage statistics as well as statistics from the TOEFL[28] language test reports of the years 1998/1999 and 2013 in order to illustrate the correlation in question.

Internet usage over time

Since its introduction over two decades ago, the Internet has seen a steady increase in users. Statistics show that amount of people who use the internet has not only risen overall, but also in relation to the population.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3: Individuals using the Internet per 100 persons[29]

Starting from 1991, the birth of the World Wide Web, the speed of increase in individuals per population using the Internet has kept accelerating until coming to a fairly steady growth rate of an average of ca. 19% per year in 1999. This trend continues until today.

Concluding from these developments, it is clear to see that the Internet has gained greatly in importance over the last 15 years.

Amounts and performance of TOEFL test takers

In the period from July 1998 to June 1999, 340,223 candidates took the TOEFL paper-based test.[30] On average, males scored 538, whereas women achieved 523 points out of 677 possible points.[31]

More recently, the amount of test takers per year has climbed to an estimated 800,000 candidates per year (2007),[32] and continuing to grow.[33] Exact amounts of of examinees are no longer published by the testing institute.[34] In the 2012 test report, the average score for males was 524 points, as well as for females.[35]

Over the timespan from 1999 until today, the performance of examinees has not significantly changed. More interestingly, the numbers of people taking the test skyrocketed. Assuming that this figured had a steady growth rate, the average growth per year was about 15%.


Comparing the developments of the Internet usage and data from the TOEFL test shows that the expansion of the Internet has little to no measurable effect on how proficient the people are at speaking English as foreign language. On the other hand, it demonstrates vividly that the English language has gained much importance under a global viewpoint, with more people interested in proving their language skills and taking tests. There are various motivations to do so, e.g. to find a better job or to get into a foreign university. The approximate concordance of the two growth patterns strongly suggests that the spreading of the World Wide Web has contributed much to the global interest in the English language as a means of communication.

4 Opportunities of English as a Lingua Franca

Looking back to the introductory example of Rakuten’s English policy and the reactions of the media as well as the employees themselves, it draws the attention to the potential opportunities and risks that the use of English as the company’s Lingua Franca might entail.

The next section will first explore the offered opportunities of adopting English as common language. It is divided into two sub-sections, which assess the opportunities within the enterprise itself and the opportunities for the enterprise in a global context.

4.1 Opportunities within the enterprise itself

The use of a Lingua Franca opens up a multitude of possible benefits within a company.

It can facilitate building up an accepted company culture and corporate identity. Sharing a language helps employees to form a common understanding of their company’s values, norms and ways of thinking.[36] The use of a Lingua Franca will also improve the work climate and feeling of togetherness among the work force, since speaking the same language alleviates transporting ideas and interests between different cultures and nationalities. This also influences the employees’ perception of the enterprise as a global one instead of a national one, enhancing the outside image of the company as well.[37]

Furthermore the exchange of knowledge is simplified: the Lingua Franca enables employees to provide their concepts and information to their peers in an effective way, omitting the need for an interpreter/translator as a middleman. One could define the language capability “as a form of meta-knowledge -knowledge about how to communicate knowledge”.[38] By using a common language, knowledge can be transferred between all employees, not only between those speaking the same mother tongue.[39] The ability to speak English also allows staff members to access a large pool of knowledge from the science world. It is estimated that nowadays about 85% of scientific publishing is in the English language.[40] This enables the business to take advantage of the latest findings in science to develop and monetize innovative products and services.

The increased effectivity of communication in combination with the improved work climate can lead to a significant boost in productivity of the work force, since necessary information can be exchanged quickly and accurately between speakers of different native languages. Due to that, work can be sped up, as misinterpretations are avoided and direct communication is made possible, which in turn results in a higher quality of production.[41] In turn, high quality is immensely beneficial to customer satisfaction, the key to long term customer loyalty.

The previously mentioned effects also provide a chance to save costs for the enterprise: less money has to be spent on translating documents into different languages that may be used within the company.[42] Also, on international events, there will be no more need for an interpreter, since all participants will be able to communicate in the common language English. The increase of productivity allows the enterprise to get more work done in the same time span with same amount of employees as before. In addition, selling state-of-the-art products promises good chances on the global market, making a high Return on Investment possible.

In particular, using English as the Lingua Franca makes sense: since it is the most widely taught foreign language in the world, fewer investments in training the employees in the language are necessary, as most employees will already have a certain level of skill in the English language. Using the language on an everyday basis with contents that are familiar and comprehensible to them, i.e. work-related topics can help them to acquire the language more quickly than any taught English class could.[43] Additionally, the English language is easy to learn and understand in general, since its standard words are short and have a simple pronunciation, as well as a quite limited morphology.[44]

To sum up, English can have a variety of benefits that find expression in corporate climate, productivity, innovation and cost effectivity.


[1] Cf. The Asahi Shimbun 2012

[2] Cf. Rakuten, Inc. 2013 p.3

[3] Cf. Japan Today 2010

[4] Cf. The Asahi Shimbun 2012

[5] Cf. Japan Today 2010

[6] Cf. The Japan Times 2012

[7] Cf. Japan Today 2010

[8] Cf. Seth 2012

[9] Cf. Neeley 2012

[10] Cf. Seth 2012

[11] Cf. Castellanos i Llorens, Carles 2010

[12] Cf. Castellanos i Llorens, Carles 2010

[13] Cf. Chirikba 2008, p.31

[14] European Commission 2011, p. 8

[15] Cf. Mydans 2007

[16] Cf. Hines 1998, p.286

[17] Cf. Kemmer 2011

[18] Cf. Luscombe n.d.

[19] Cf. Ibid.

[20] Cf. Crystal 2012, p.120

[21] Cf. Ibid.

[22] Cf. Crystal 2012, p.121

[23] Cf. Graddol 2000, p.10

[24] Cf. Carbone 2008

[25] Crystal 2012, p.5

[26] Kleinrock 2010

[27] Blum 2011

[28] Test of English as a Foreign Language

[29] See appendix for raw data

[30] Cf. Educational Testing Service 2000 p. 11

[31] Cf. Educational Testing Service 2000 p. 13

[32] Cf. Jaschik 2006

[33] Cf. Sanchez-Lazer 2012

[34] Cf. Labi 2010

[35] Cf. Educational Testing Service 2013 p. 10

[36] Cf. Vollstedt 2002, p.93-94

[37] Cf. Vollstedt 2002, p.94

[38] Cf. Chen und Jackson 2008 p. 18

[39] Cf. Baker et al. 2001

[40] Cf. Stein 2009, p.10

[41] Cf. The International Research Foundation for English Language Education 2009, p.14

[42] Cf. Vollstedt 2002, p.94

[43] Cf. Krashen 2009, p.53

[44] Cf. Frath n.d., p.3

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Challenges for Internationalization. The Role of English as a Lingua Franca in the Corporate Environment
University of Applied Sciences Südwestfalen; Meschede
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Lingua Franca, English, Internationalization, Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten, BULATS, Language proficiency, Corporate Language
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Sonja Schricker (Author), 2013, Challenges for Internationalization. The Role of English as a Lingua Franca in the Corporate Environment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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