English in the workplace

During the 19th century and the first part of the 20th the economic development of European countries took place within national frontiers and for certain of them in conjunction with, and with the aid of, their colonial empires. Development was assisted by their national languages. During that period the economic relations between countries were mainly commercial and some countries built their prosperity on this trade. However, no lingua franca emerged.

After the second world war the European countries' economies became progressively internationalised, in other words they became part of the growing worldwide flow of technical know-how, raw materials, capital, goods and services. The economies of the Scandinavian countries quickly adapted. The large firms in those countries were also the first in Europe to find that their national languages did not have sufficient "impact" to form part of this process.

Most of them turned towards English.

This practice was highlighted by the work of Hollqvist (1984), who described in detail the use of English in Swedish firms. In some of them, such as Ericsson (telephones) and S.A.S. (air transport), English enjoyed a status described by Hollqvist as that of "company language". This means that its use was required for all forms of written and oral communication involving persons of different linguistic origins, at least at the firms' head offices.

Hollqvist also mentions the Volvo group (private cars and industrial vehicles), which gave English official status as far back as January 1975. Other languages, particularly German, Spanish and French, are also used in those companies but mainly for outside contacts.

In other western European countries, the internationalisation of the economy has similarly led to an increased use of English, as can be seen from the expansion in language training for adults in the 1970s and 1980s. However, English was not the only language used. In addition, the assignment of official status to English for business purposes as in Sweden seems to have remained an exception.

Mention may be made of the Airbus Industries consortium founded in the 1980s by the main German, French, British and Spanish aircraft manufacturers. The group reports that English is used as the common working language for all its factories, the main ones of which are in Toulouse and Hamburg.

But no study has been performed and evidence suggests the existence of complex modes of communication between the different national groups involved. Coulmas (1992) also mentions the cases of the German tyre manufacturer Continental and the Dutch electronics company Philips but does not refer to any studies concerning them.