Interpreting, Communication & Global English

Multilingual conferences with expert language interpretation foster participation and effective communication.

Photo credits: iQoncept -

Today many international conferences are monolingual, which usually means English only. In many others English is designated as the only language to be spoken in the room, while interpretation into one or more other tongues is made available.

The significance of what these two models share – namely that everyone must speak English – is of no greater import than what is clearly implied in the second option: that one-way communication with a touch of courtesy for the others is enough.

It’s time to ask if an invitation to listen to one’s mother tongue without the concomitant right to speak it leads to effective communication – and related questions: What’s behind this all-English trend? Is communication actually desired? Is monolingualism really about saving money? Might multilingualism be more cost-effective than the alternative when examined from a broader perspective?

Language matters

Power and language have always been intertwined, and many have written on the matter better than I can. As Gramsci noted: "Every time that the question of language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore.[i]

And as Antonio de Nebrija wrote in the prologue of his Gramática de la lengua castellana (1493): "Siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio.” [ii]

This was not simply a pretty phrase coined to impress the court. As Zhenja La Rosa comments: “It was prophetic, in that throughout the conquest of the Americas, and the centuries of colonialism, language was used by the Spanish as a tool for conquest: to consolidate political power, to spread the Catholic faith, and to unify the empire.” [iii] Is something similar happening today?

No language is neutral, not even so-called Global English. A language is embedded in a specific culture, a way of thinking, a belief system, a vital approach to existence. That is its beauty and much is lost when a person cannot address others in her or his native tongue­. As former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher put it: "In a foreign language I say what I can. In my own language I say what I want."

The idea of using a simplified form of English as a lingua franca has been around for a long time and should be considered within an evolving political context. Basic English was published by Charles Kay Ogden in 1930, and was especially popular after the end of World War II. Winston Churchill advocated for it in his Anglo American Unity speech [iv], identifying it as an essential part of post-war policy and collaboration between his country and the United States. After a short period of support for Basic English, George Orwell reconsidered; it’s said that the construct informed his creation of Newspeak. [v]

More recently Jean-Paul Nerrière brought the idea into the age of commercial globalization by creating Globish™, “a subset of standard English grammar, and a list of 1500 English words[vi] which he recommends for use in international business – and of which he has made a global business. To be fair, Nerrière claims that his trademarked product will actually “limit the influence of (English)” and sees himself as “helping the rescue of French, and of all the languages that are threatened by English today but which will not be at all endangered by Globish. It is in the best interests of non-Anglophone countries to support Globish, especially if you like your culture and its language.” [vii] Mr. Nerrière might be sincere, but he is also admitting that global English is of limited expressiveness and unsuitable to situations in which ideas, beliefs and emotion matter.

Even the European Union is drifting toward less multilingualism under the guise of reducing costs. Yet the amount being spent is not that great. According to the European Commission (emphasis from the original): “(T)he cost of all language services in all EU institutions amounts to less than 1% of the annual general budget of the EU. Divided by the population of the EU, this comes to around €2 per person per year.” [viii] Moreover, commentators point out that any savings in the area of languages would be ephemeral as costs in other areas would likely increase. [ix]

This section was intended to highlight a few issues behind the English-only trend. Let’s now return to meeting dynamics with an example.

Participation in multilingual meetings

I have seen many illustrations of the assumption that translation is for the others, a service offered with a sense of noblesse oblige adapted to today’s model of globalization. Here’s one.

Some years ago, on the first morning of a conference, I stopped by the table where headsets were being distributed to say hello to the people working with the equipment. As we chatted, an attendee came by to request a headset, which led to this short exchange (I don’t blame the employees in any way; they probably received instructions on what to tell people):

Are you handing out the interpreting sets? What do you need from me?
Do you speak English?
Well, then you don't need one.

Fast forward to the first session. The panelists all spoke English, but in the Q&A one participant approached a microphone and said he would prefer to use Spanish, one of the official languages. As he started to speak, the panelists realized they had no receivers. Immediately there was a flurry of activity, the meeting was interrupted, and someone was sent out to fetch headsets. Other attendees also went in search of the same. The ensuing delay was embarrassing for all and finally the Spanish speaker said what he would try to manage in English. And that set the tone for the rest of the week; no one spoke anything but English. Some participants probably chose not to speak.

This anecdote illustrates what interpreters know and what research is beginning to confirm, namely that active participation declines when people are kept from speaking their native language. Communication becomes one-directional. The audience may be invited to pose questions, but they are not treated as interlocutors.


Communication is not a simple commodity. If the aim is to share ideas on an equal footing and find mutual understanding, simplified English is never enough. In international conferences a chance to listen to one’s native language should be accompanied by the right to speak it– and be truly heard. Multilingualism must be embraced, its benefits appreciated. Expert interpretation fosters greater participation and nuanced communication across cultural divides.

Further Reading

From Communicate!/The AIIC Webzine


[i] The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. by Davud Forgacs, Page 367. New York University Press, New York. Accessed at on 23 Jan 2016.
[ii] Language has always been the handmaiden of empire.
[iii] La Rosa, Zhenja, The Student Historical Journal 1995-96, Loyola Univeristy, New Orleans. Accessed at on 22 Jan 2016.
[iv] Winston Churchill, Harvard University, 6 Sep 1943.
[v] Illich, Ivan; Barry Sanders (1988). ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. San Francisco: North Point Press. p. 109.ISBN 0-86547-291-2. The satirical force with which Orwell used Newspeak to serve as his portrait of one of those totalitarian ideas that he saw taking root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere can be understood only if we remember that he speaks with shame about a belief that he formerly held... From 1942 to 1944, working as a colleague of William Empson's, he produced a series of broadcasts to India written in Basic English, trying to use its programmed simplicity, as a Tribune article put it, as a sort of corrective to the oratory of statesmen and publicists. “Only during the last year of the war did he write ‘Politics and the English Language’, insisting that the defense of English language has nothing to do with the setting up of a Standard English ." Accessed at on 22 Jan 2016.
[vi] Wikipedia, accessed on 20 January 2016 at
[vii] Quoted by Robert McCrum in “So, what’s this Globish Revolution?”, The Guardian, 3 December 2006. Accessed at on 23 Jan 2016.
[viii] European Commission. Accessed at on 24 Jan 2016.
[ix] See Dominique Hoppe ,“Le coût du monolinguisme”. Accessed at on 24 Jan 2016.

Recommended citation format:
Luigi LUCCARELLI. "Interpreting, Communication & Global English". January 25, 2016. Accessed July 6, 2020. <>.

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UK separation from the EU should not imply loss of the world’s most useful language.

By James Nolan, JD, AIIC, ACI

Deputy Director, Interpretation, Meetings & Publishing Division, United Nations (ret)

Head of Linguistic Services, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ret)


As a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters and an Auxiliary Conference Interpreter with the EU, I received an invitation to the General Assembly of EP Permanent and Temporary Staff Interpreters on 6 July 2016 but was unable to attend because I was not in Brussels.  However, wishing to offer some input into the discussion of the recent UK vote on separation from the EU, I submit this discussion paper.

The EU is reportedly urging the UK to complete withdrawal procedures expeditiously in order to minimize disruption. Meanwhile, there is speculation that English will cease to be an official EU language.[1]   That would be a misfortune for both the EU and the world.

Britain has no monopoly on the English language, which is part of the world’s cultural heritage, spoken as a first or second language by some 850 million people.[2]   I cannot help recalling that on the occasions when I have been privileged to work for the EU, training interpreters in the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo organized by the Civilian Office, European Union Special Representative (September, 2009) and interpreting at the 67th EU/US Inter-parliamentary Meeting in Washington D.C. & New York (December, 2009), the language I used was Standard English and knowledge of the dialect or accent of the British Isles was irrelevant.

Regardless of whether England remains a member country, the EU needs English in order to remain what it is today: “one of the greatest economic and political achievements of modern times” in the words of President Obama,[3]  an intergovernmental organization of global stature representing the values and ideals of European culture, an economic power comparable to the US, and a cornerstone of world order second only to the UN.

With one member less, the EU will remain all of these things but the burdens on the remaining members will be heavier and it would be unrealistic and unfair to ask Ireland or Malta to shoulder the responsibility for the continued use of English when that position could place them at odds with the survival of their own national languages.

That is how the question appears from a political point of view and it will no doubt be resolved by negotiation.

However, the question from a technical-linguistic point of view is somewhat different.  English needs to be maintained among the EU languages not out of deference to any particular sovereign state but because for historical reasons it happens to be today’s global lingua franca, the nearest thing the world now has to a universal language, and hence an invaluable tool of communication, and an indispensable pivot language in simultaneous interpretation into other languages.  That being so, it is pointless to expect English-speaking  EU linguists to belong to a particular nationality, especially in view of the fact that nationality is per se a suspect classification in most legal contexts because it lends itself to misuse.  More importantly, it would be counterproductive from the standpoint of interpretation quality.

Interpreting is a form of public speaking, and interpreting for international fora, with participants coming from many different nations and cultures and the output being recorded and eventually broadcast online worldwide, is a form of acting on the world stage.  Above all else, what is expected of interpreters by an international audience, and by the other interpreters who may be taking relay into other languages, especially if one’s target language is a lingua franca like English, is clarity.  This means cultivating a relatively neutral style of speech unencumbered by strong accents or regionalisms.  In this regard, there is no better advice than that offered by a great actress and acting teacher, Uta Hagen:

“Hamlet’s advice to the players, ‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue,’ does not make much sense when delivered with New Yorkese distortions. We have heard the comic overtones, the disservice done to the poetry of Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot, to the tirades of Shaw by drawls and twangs and slurs.  Nor is British speech the answer.  It places Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg or Molière in the heart of England. British speech belongs to our colleagues abroad.  If it is demanded by a specific character or the milieu of the play, it can be learned with the relative ease with which other dialects or accents are learned for particular roles.” [Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. Scribner, New York, 1991. P. 39.]


With or without England, Europe needs English.


[2] English is the mother language of an estimated 341 million people and the second language of 508 million people in over sixty countries.  When combining native and non-native speakers, English is the most widely spoken language worldwide.[5][6]


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