But who speaks English?

Most of my American or British friends would think I do. But I do not think so. I understand them, and they understand my English most of the time. However, I do not speak like them, and it is clear from the first second that English is not my mother tongue. (See Sidebar: What is the situation in France?)

People like you or me are the huge majority. That is, we own the world language, and may soon own the world. Native English-speakers are at most 12% of mankind, and this counts many who live in countries where English is only one of several official languages, like India.

The rest of us speak and use some English. We have a variety of understandable pronunciations. We have a grammar which is clear but not long-winded, and a number of tricks to make sure we are understood. With all of this, we manage to get our message across, in enough situations to be happy with it.

My observation, of over forty years now, is that we Globish speakers manage better among us than when we are working with native English speakers. It is because together we understand our limitations better. This light struck me full on in Tokyo, in September of 1989. I had just been appointed Vice President of IBM USA, in charge of International Marketing; and I was visiting Japan, the biggest market for IBM after the USA. A team of Americans working for me was on the same trip. These Americans quickly silenced all Japanese responses in the conference rooms with their large number of words, spoken so quickly in such long sentences. 
On the other hand, I observed that my “poor” communication with my Japanese fellows, and Japanese executives of leading international customers, was somehow more effective. There was clearly more trust between us. These Japanese top leaders had been bravely entering a discussion where their limited English could lead to shame. With my limited English, I was losing face more than often, but they saw that I had good fun about it. When that ice was broken, the non-native English (you may read Globish) speakers were a great deal more comfortable.

It was clear then that because of their extensive English, my American employees were the ones creating the distance.  The Japanese leaders thought they could have tried harder to understand us. This distance could not happen between the employees and me, of course. I was the boss, and accepted many shameful occasions as a fact of life in international communication. I knew I was a respectable boss, and a fairly effective one. My command of English would not have made me a better one, even if it had been perfect.

I found this truth: “There is something wrong in this world, it seems. We are all supposed to speak English, and my Japanese friend Satake-san, whose English is not better than mine, communicates better with me than with Ted and Dick (from IBM), who have English as a mother tongue.”

While Satake-san and the Japanese executives I met were doing their best, they were not really speaking a high level of English (just like me). I understood that they had limitations in their English, and I had limitations in mine. And, (good news!), these limitations were not exactly the same, but still not very different. None of non-native speakers would use unfamiliar words like "eerie," "spooky," or "skittery." This was why we felt comfortable with each other. I decided that if I could make the limitations identical, the result would be the same as if we had no limitation left at all. In theory, all communication would then be perfect. I just needed to observe closely, and set these limitations to what would be “enough” English.

When back in the office in Armonk, near New York City, I had a meeting with my whole team. I told them, “You think your command of English is a plus, that it gives you an edge. Not all, it is a handicap. What is spoken around the world might be written like English, sounds like English, tastes like English, but it is not English. I will give it a different name, and call it 'Globish,' because, if I called it 'simple English,' you would also say again, 'This is still MY English, but simple. I can make mine simple, it is easy.' However, it is not easy at all, you will have to adapt and understand and be understood by our Japanese customers better. Otherwise we will lose businesses there.”

Needless to say, they were shocked.

Sidebar: What is the situation in France?
It is terrible, much worse than in Japan, for at least three reasons: 

1)- The majority of students study only in written form.
In my country, most of the teachers are not interested in preparing their students for an international business life.  This is true in high school, or even in colleges not specializing in foreign languages. They focus on the wonderful Anglo-Saxon culture, the literature. They do not want to prepare “ready made products” for the needs of the businesses. With this, the goal of learning English is to pass a test, and then enter college. A minority of the teachers has a different view: they want their students to have the best chance of getting a job. Theirs are the only students who will enter active life just after high school without going to college and university. These teachers want their students to get jobs fast. Thus they work more on the real issue for students, which is being able to work in an international environment as soon as there is a need. Those are the ones who support Globish. The overall result, however, is that the majority of French students study English which is presented and understood only in written form.

2)- Our French ears are not trained to the features of English.
This is all the more a problem since there is no accentuation in French, no stressed syllable, as opposed to English and a number of other languages. The result is that our French ears are not trained to this feature of English. We do not notice there is an accentuation when we hear a word, and we cannot reproduce what we cannot hear.  When we learn the words from their written forms, we think the word “international” (which exists with exactly the same spelling in my language) should be pronounced the same way as it is French. Nobody would ever understand, unless he is also French. 

3)- The French are terribly unsure.
They do not believe enough in themselves. They are most concerned about losing face, perhaps more so than my Japanese friends. “Ridicule will kill you” is a saying everybody here knows. Most people do not even try to speak English, especially with native English speakers.  They are afraid of and think they will not be up to expectations. In a group, when one of them wants to say something important, he starts preparing in his mind the pretty sentence he will use.  When he is finally ready, the discussion has already gone elsewhere, it is too late, and my poor friend keeps silent. The group missed his ideas, and he is very upset, at himself and at the group. If I may be forgiven the comparison, on average the Germans do not speak English better than we French, but they do not care. They step forth and speak out, happily saying what they have to say, whatever the quality of their English, and they do not seem to suffer any shame.