Yesterday, I talked to a conference audience about the virtues of crowdsourcing and collective wisdom. And nowadays, the best illustration of how that works is through a live demo. It has been done many times before – I know – but for me it was the first time to bring in Twitter and Yammer in real-time. Before I started my presentation, I asked the audience if they had any pressing questions concerning the subject. As this was a Dutch audience (managers in the government sector), I was not completely surprised by the first question that popped up: “will a real effective use of social networks require us to use English as the default language?”.
I injected the question in Twitter and Yammer (the latter restricted to Capgemini personnel) and then proceeded with my presentation, taking the listeners on a carrousel ride from the early days of Google and Blogger right into wiki’s, the social graph, tweeting and even Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. We all had fun, but at the end – 20 minutes later – the audience was really blown away by the number of answers and ideas that I had received in the background. Actually, on Yammer already some colleagues were involved in an animated discussion about languages and seemed to have completely forgotten about the original question. I got answers from many different countries, including India, Slovakia, UK, the Netherlands, France, Norway and the US. And all of the answers were written in English, according to many the Internet incarnation of the Esperanto language nobody ever really managed to kick off.

This triggered a lively debate, afterwards in the conference room. If we really want to benefit from the power of the crowd, we must involve as many people as we can in our network. And presumably sooner than later, some of them will not speak our native language. Then we have to switch to a language that everybody more or less understands, most likely English. To non-native speakers that will limit – to a certain extent – their ability to express themselves. It may very well put them in a more disadvantageous position compared to their native English speaking peers.
Sounds like a real conundrum: in order to expand your horizon and tap into the potential of a globalizing world, you need to turn to a language that somewhat restricts you. If you use your own language, in order to express yourself to the maximum, you reduce the scope of what you can reach.
And to make things so much worse: the British and the Americans don’t have that problem.
Of course, to some – particularly working in information technology – English is almost a native language. And most of the Dutch people in the conference room said they would not mind speaking English at all (although only my fellow Dutchmen would understand the special meaning of “It Is Me What”) if it helped them to obtain more and better knowledge.
In the meantime, on Yammer the discussion went on as well. Actually, it still does. Most people tend to agree that a common language is needed in order to maximize collaboration, but on the other hand some will stick to their own language whenever they can. Even when they know that it may lock out useful feedback from colleagues from other regions. It’s only human. One colleague claimed that he refrained from using Norwegian, because he noticed that quite some people unfollowed him on Twitter right after publishing some Norwegian tweets. Another felt that using a regional language on the network was even a rude gesture, much like the well-known phenomenon of fellow countrymen turning to their own language at an international dinner table. A few hope – against all odds – for technological breakthroughs in online translation (a couple of minutes playing with Google Translate so far is still hilarious).
All interesting viewpoints. And no final verdict in sight. One thing is for sure: with so many additional people speaking so much more English, the language itself is rapidly evolving. And old ideas about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ English are quickly fading away. Actually, in terms of absolute numbers ‘Chinglish’ – the typical Chinese way of using English – may soon turn out to be a dominating standard, on its turn morphing into world English or ‘Panglish’. Very inspiring. As this excellent article in Wired magazine states: “soon, when Americans travel abroad, one of the languages they’ll have to learn may be their own”.
I can’t wait to see that happen. I stand trampling from impatience, actually.