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It's Time for Americans to Learn English

By Carol Andrus

English is the most universal language and the most commonly used for transmitting important information. Consider some statistics: 47% of the world's radio and TV broadcasts, half of the world's books, the majority of international telephone calls, 75% of the world's mail, and 80% of the world's computer databases are in English.

Teaching English is a booming international business. American colleges yearly enroll 500,000 foreign students, 40,000 from Japan alone. Of all Europeans ages 18-24, 70% speak good to excellent English.

English is the language of the European Economic Community, international science, mathematics, and air traffic control. As the global language, English functions officially and unofficially as the medium of communication in and among countless countries.

One would think, then, that Americans, born into the language, would have an advantage. Sadly, this is not so. Here are two items of evidence:

  • A German employee of an American bank in Berlin reports that German typists, high-school graduates who enter the workforce trilingual, giggle as they correct English correspondence written by their American college-graduate bosses.

  • An American with offices in Asia confides that he hires not Americans but Europeans or Filipinos because their English is better. The official language of the Philippines is Tagalog, but with 87 other languages spoken in the islands, all Filipino children start first grade in English.
  • With the instantaneous communication of modern technology, many American companies now send clerical work by satellite to the Philippines and other countries such as Ireland because of their English-proficient workers. A Wall Street banker jokes that his secretary is in Tipperary.

    How does the lack of English proficiency in American workers affect the bottom lines of American businesses? Here are some hard facts.

  • A single, correct business letter costs American business double what it
    costs to produce in other industrialized nations. More astounding, every year American business spends $60 billion for employee training, more than half of which is for remedial courses in skills such as grammar, reading, math, and business writing.

  • Training companies do a brisk business in one-day grammar and writing seminars. Thousands of American employees attend, many of them college-educated or hold of MBAs from respected graduate schools. They are sent there by frustrated employers to learn not only the distinctions between such commonly misused words as imply and infer, waiver and waver, and disperse and disburse, but also basics such as its and it's and their and they're.
  • Our lack of knowledge of our own language is appalling. Business correspondence from the most respected institutions abounds in misspellings, mispunctuation, apostrophe catastrophes, embarrassing grammar gaffes, confusing syntax, and outrageous misuses that obscure intended meaning.

    "I want to awarize you of the problem," writes a lawyer. "These day's," announces a glossy catalog, "we only use the best manafacturers!" In a recent article on teaching ethics in schools, none other than the New York Times questions: "but. . . who's ethics?" A respected New York City college mails out thousands of brochures for a 1-day seminar: "How to Pay for College When Your Not a Kid".

    Corporations, government, and educational institutions spew forth reams of bloated overwriting and confusing gobbledygook. Policies are commentated on before being implementated, and analyzation is docu-mentalized.

    Even the grammar seminar companies aren't infallible. The workbook of one nationally known company reads, "Each of these questions have two answers" and teaches "Whom shall I say is calling?" and "May I speak to whomever is in charge!"

    Is there no respite? On TV, a bureaucrat testifies before Congress, uncategorically denying insinuendoes, and CNN appraises listeners of weather conditions. "Warrior Sheild" reads the sign on a display at the American Museum of Natural History. Dinner out? "Try our lobstertail stuffed with superb crapmeat!" urges the menu. An evening at the opera? "Don't go," warns a friend "The supertitles are full of spelling mistakes!"

    Prince Charles recently appointed himself Defender of the English Language and publicly called upon Americans to stop slaughtering the language and to teach English to their children.

    In a recent New York Times article, headlined, "Fewer Secretaries On Hand to Celebrate Their Day," statistics reflected the loss of American clerical jobs. In 1974, secretaries were 3.7% of our total workforce; in 1994, a mere 2.8%. In "10 Tips to Keep Your Job," number two was "Sharpen your grammar and your writing."

    The population of America is about 260 million. Of the 1.2 billion citizens of China, 260 million Chinese students are enrolled in English classes. They are, perhaps, the next available pool of fast, accurate, English-proficient clerical workers.

    The whole world is learning English. Maybe we Americans should, too.
    Carol Andrus is a member of the National Speakers Association.

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