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Divided by a Common Language

By Bob Little / May 2009

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Many U.S. companies—especially those in the learning technologies sector—view the U.K. as America "writ small." They believe the U.K. —with a land mass roughly equivalent to the state of Oregon—speaks the same language, buys for the same reasons, and is susceptible to the same marketing techniques. These companies have discovered, often at considerable cost, that these assumptions are false.

According to the British Council, English is spoken as a first language by more than 375 million people and used as a second language by some 375 million more. One in five of the world's population speaks English with a good level of competence and, within the next few years, the number of people speaking English as a second language will exceed the number of native speakers. As a lingua franca, especially a business lingua franca, the future of English seems assured. But there is no guarantee that people from different cultures, such as the U.S. and the U.K., are communicating simply because they both speak the same tongue.

Communication is the act of getting a person or a group to understand what you want them to. When we communicate we are also developing trust, as well as influencing, convincing, persuading, and thereby understanding our customers' needs and building relationships that weather the test of time. There is a logical transition from the acquisition of a language to learning how to use it effectively and adapting it according to your audience. Notice the trail: language, communication, culture.

Let's first look at language. There are more to the differences between American and British English than switching 's' (British) for 'z' (American). The differences also extend beyond mutually exclusive words such as noting autumn (U.K.) as fall (U.S.); or referring to the restroom (U.S.) instead of gents/ladies or lavatory (upper-class British), toilet (middle-class British), or loo (working-class British).

Then, there's the use of capital letters. While proper nouns attract capital letters (for example, "queens of England have included Elizabeth..." but "Elizabeth is the Queen..."), modern usage in British English is to reduce the use of capital letters within a sentence wherever possible. Not so in the U.S. Moreover, while Americans think the internet (I mean, Internet) is pretty neat and therefore everything it influences warrants capital letters, Britons believe the internet is useful but not on a par with, say, God (whose name, of course, always attracts a capital letter). And so things to do with the internet, technology, and so on do not warrant capital letters in the U.K. Brits write "web 2.0" while Americans write "Web 2.0." Maybe American English has been unduly influenced over the years by the many immigrants to the U.S. from Germany, a culture that seems to opt for capital letters in the middle of sentences at the drop of a hat. Indeed, Americans have adopted this approach to their written language.

Words in common usage in America or Britain can sound at best odd or amusing and, at worst, sinister when they are transplanted. In business, words such as leverage and leveraging grate on the British ear. We may use them (to be polite) but we don't like them and, if truth be told, we suspect that people who use such words are not completely trustworthy.

Consequently, communication—with suppliers and customers—is often lost when a U.S. company sets up an office in the U.K.

Whole books have been written about culture differences between different nationalities. Among the best is When Cultures Collide by Richard D. Lewis. The book contains some 600 pages of wisdom illustrating why your way of thinking and doing business is not necessarily mine.

As a business leader or educator eagerly eyeing international expansion, the greatest mistake you can make is to think a communication gulch does not apply to you.


  • Mon, 01 Mar 2010
    Post by Joshua

    The article gives an excellent take on instructional design, going beyond the ADDIE model and breaking out the Analysis portion into a system all its own. The emphasis on learner and context analysis creates an interesting concept, especially the call to consider the pedagogic background of instructional design, something that can be overlooked as we move forward into innovative methods for designing instructions.