The Benefits and Drawbacks of designating English as a Company’s official language

Public Relations Office        February 9, 2018

Investigating how to approach this new style of business communication from several points of view

Momotaro Takamori, Assistant Professor

Momotaro Takamori, Assistant Professor

Momotaro Takamori, Assistant Professor, School of Business Administration
Graduated from the Doshisha University Faculty of Letters, completed his Master’s degree at the Doshisha University Graduate School of American Studies and attained a Ph.D. (Commerce) from the Doshisha University Graduate School of Commerce. Worked as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Commerce at Doshisha University efore taking his current position in April 2017. Specializes in international business communication theory.

In recent years, an increasing number of Japanese companies have designated English as their official corporate language. As globalization marches forward, it is expected that more and more companies around the world will designate one particular language as their official language for doing business. What effect does promoting the designation of an official company language have on a company? Assistant Professor Momotaro Takamori of the School of Business Administration is examining this issue from multiple angles, including the viewpoints of management and businesspeople, as well as perspectives on the role of language.

Momotaro Takamori, Assistant Professor

For most people, when they hear the phrase “official company language.” English is what comes to mind. In fact, there are some researchers that point out that of all the companies around the world that can be described as global companies, roughly 52% have adopted English as their official corporate language. Even in Japan, companies such as Fast Retailing, Shiseido and Honda have either implemented a change to English or are moving in that direction. Assistant Professor Takamori is primarily conducting an investigation of the literature, including mass media reporting, and is working towards formulating theories from various different angles based on the released material. He also conducts interviews to incorporate fresh opinions into his research. “There are various ways that companies adopt official languages. In some cases, it may be the result of M&A. In other cases, companies may plan to do so in preparation for the future. There are also some Japanese global companies that have designated Japanese as their official language. At first glance, it seems to be simple, but when we dig deeper, there are many complex problems,” he says.
One example of this is Rakuten, which proclaimed in its management strategy that its goal is to “become the world’s leading Internet service company.” Rakuten announced in 2010 that it would use English as its official company language, and moved quickly to implement the change. The official designation began in 2012, just two years later. This decision was peculiar for being a top-down decision from Chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, which applied to the entire company. The decision mandates the use of English in conversations, even when all parties are Japanese. The move attracted the attention of many media outlets, and the general impressions from them were along the lines of “This is a cutting-edge move,” “This will speed up business,” and “The switch will go well if management philosophy is solid and major departments have their acts together.” Designating English as a company language does actually provide advantages: moving into new markets, gathering information from around the world more rapidly, facilitating more efficient communication with parties overseas and helping to secure talented personnel. However, Asst. Prof. Takamori points out that, “Continued research into the matter reveals that there are aspects to designating a particular language as the company language that do not go smoothly. In the case of Rakuten, the company may have moved closer to becoming the sort of organization that the CEO was aiming for, but the move has certainly not led to an improvement in their business. In another company, there were cases where secret ‘second meetings’ were held in Japanese after English meetings. This led to internal confusion, and the company abolished the English mandate.”

The Benefits and Drawbacks of designating English as a Company’s official language

A common occurrence in many companies is that they end up equating language skill in employees with talent. The switch also affects people’s promotions. This results in excellent employees who are less skilled in languages receiving poor evaluations, which may lead to them leaving their job, so the net result may be negative for the company. There are also cases where a company puts money into gathering excellent foreign employees and then those employees are headhunted by other companies. There was also a case where an American business ignored employees in Spanish-speaking areas and decided on English as the official company language. There was great opposition from the employees, and eventually the president of the company issued an apology. In Mr. Takamori’s analysis, “Designating one particular language as the official corporate language can make a great contribution to the growth and development of a company, but there are many examples of it being a risk. In addition to considering issues such as corporate culture, company strategy and the level of English ability that will be required of the employees, it is also important to set standards which take the costs of using a language, the rights of employees to use other languages, and the utilization of a language as a resource into account. It is conceivable that an unexpected M&A or change in social conditions may lead to a change in the official company language, and companies have to make preparations so that they can respond flexibly.”
It is certain that in the near future, advances in technologies such as AI and automatic translation will lower the language hurdle. On the other hand, this communication, which will use words chosen by a machine, will lead to new questions and problems such as “Where did that idea come from?” “What does that line of thinking mean?” and “Who is responsible for what has just been said?” It will therefore become important to communicate true meaning, which goes one step beyond the words that were said. Mr. Takamori explained his enthusiasm, saying “This research is still a new field. There isn’t much literature which has proposed theories, and that is what makes studying it worthwhile and satisfying. It is expected that the introduction of AI and machine translations will lead to further changes in the situation from now on, so I therefore want to investigate the pros and cons of introducing them, and the form that business communication should take in the future.”

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