Per Durst_Andersen_Global English as international business language | Carlsbergfondet
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Global English as International Business Language

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 14/09/2016

The Significance of the Mother Tongue for Speech Production, Reception, and the Formation of Association

The Global English Business Communication Project (The GEBCom Project) at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) is initiated with the help of a Semper Ardens Research Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation and co-financed by CBS. The aim is twofold. 

First, we study how Global English works in the globalised business world with the Carlsberg Group as an example. The GEBCom Group tests against concrete data from language production and language comprehension tests made on location. We test how reliable and effective a medium of communication Global English is when it is used in intercultural business encounters among non-native speakers. Secondly, by investigating how business people from Great Britain, China, Japan, Russia, and Denmark make different types of requests in English, how they understand an English text and how the associative network works when dealing with the English lexicon, we want to examine whether or not the culture-specific mental universe belonging to any given mother tongue influences a non-native English-speaker’s production, comprehension and association of English. 

Based on the results, it is ultimately possible to make recommendations in order to avoid miscommunication and unsuccessful business operations when using English as a global business lingua franca.


English is increasingly used as a business lingua franca (BLF) in connection with intercultural meetings in the business world. Moreover, it is often preferred as the corporate language within multilingual business companies or in multilingual university departments. Companies prefer English because it is considered more cost-effective than using a country’s indigenous language and it is used as a corporate language in order to have a common language shared by employees representing a number of different native languages.

Until recently all varieties of English, e.g. American, Danish, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Indian, and Brazilian English, were thought of more or less as dialects of a common tongue called Global English – all being mutually intelligible and equally capable of being used as a medium of exchange in intercultural encounters without causing any substantial problems. 

Increasingly, however, companies are beginning to realise that Global English is not at all a fully-fledged common language and that it leads to miscommunication and to unsuccessful business operations more often than we used to assume. Various studies and pilot studies also point to the fact that using Global English among business people or among professionals involves communication problems ranging from misunderstanding of a simple request to lack of trust in an entire company. 

Moreover, a major study conducted by Forbes Insight disproved the myth that if only you master English at native or near-native level, the better the communication with a given hearer: a Chinese person, for instance, is much more comfortable talking to a poor speaker of English than to a person whose native language is English. Despite the problems involved in Global English Business Communication, the international development and the need for a common lingua franca cannot be discarded and the business world has to live and cope with English as the role of a worldwide language.

The GEBCom Group’s main objective is to investigate how Global English works in the globalised business world. In order to do this the GEBCom Group tests if the mother tongue influences a person’s speech production, reception, and association in his or her Global English. If it turns out to be so, we want to determine what such influences are. We expect to discover that the culture-specific mental universe belonging to any given mother tongue influences a non-native English-speaker’s production and comprehension of English utterances and sayings.

The GEBCom group consists of five members, a leader, one PhD student financed by CBS, and three PhD students supported by the Carlsberg Foundation.


The idea that different languages may involve different cultural and mental universes is intimately connected to E. Sapir and B.L. Whorf. However, the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does not provide us with a holistic guide for analysing and contrasting various types of communication. 

This is provided by Durst-Andersen’s Theory of Communicative Supertypes (Durst-Andersen 2011a and 2011b) in which languages fall into three supertypes which differ fundamentally from one another by their semiotic direction resulting in completely different communication processes. There are three distinct choices of semiotic direction: 

  1. Russian, French and Hindi talk about reality through the situation being common to the speaker and the hearer. 
  2. Chinese, Japanese and Spanish talk about reality through the speaker’s experience of the situation.
  3. English, Danish and Swedish talk about reality through the hearer’s experience.

The Supertype Theory offers a framework to further unfurl the clear evidence for claiming that when a non-native speaker uses English, s/he will do so by using the customary communication processes typical of his mother tongue. It provides a methodical account of the misunderstandings that might inevitably occur when non-native English speakers communicate in the global market place. 

It is the first theory ever to break with all traditional views of language and communication by developing and giving a solid empirical basis to the ideas that were previously offered by Sapir (1921). It provides a holistic guide for analysing the cultural and mental universe of a given speech community in a decisively new way.


Data for the study derives from groups of 25 business people from Great Britain, China, Japan, Russia, and Denmark, respectively. Moreover, other groups of 25 business people from the same countries went through the production test in their mother tongue in order to be able to compare business people’s performances in their mother tongue to their performances in English. These data were later supplemented by similar tests among BA-students of English in Great Britain, China and Japan. 

The collection of data in the five countries was made possible by the Semper Ardens Research Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation and by being allowed access to the various countries by the Carlsberg Group. All 275 participants signed a detailed consent form before they completed three tests. The results from the three tests made by people not having English as their mother tongue are compared with the results from corresponding tests made by the British control group. 

The results of the English production test are similarly compared to the production test in the mother tongue. All this should yield a firm basis for drawing conclusions with respect to differences among business people from different countries and with respect to influence from mother tongue.

The Three Tests

Production Test: Investigating the production of requests in Global English on the basis of 17 scenario descriptions each involving either permission, prohibition, obligation, or cancellation of an obligation

Reception Test: Investigating the  perception and comprehension of small written English texts involving issues as differences in aspect, tense, lexicon, word order, clause order, and politeness/impoliteness

Association Test: Investigating the associative network of Global English speakers on the basis of a free association test involving emotion words, a picture-driven association test and a context-bound association test with the same set of emotion words

Results, Conclusion, and Future Perspectives

Although the PhD students have not finished their theses yet, we have already seen some very interesting and valuable results from our analysis. It is, for instance, very clear that it is not possible to treat Global English as one language having a lot of dialects. It seems to be the case that we are confronted with five different languages, i.e. British English, Chinese English, Russian English, Japanese English, and Danish English. 

On the surface, they, for instance, use the same emotion words, but an in-depth-analysis shows that they do not understand the same when they use them or when they hear them. Each emotion word activates its own neurophysiological network with participants from Great Britain, China, Russia, Japan, and Denmark.

Moreover, it appears that there are big differences among the five groups when they produce requests. This concerns use of different sentence forms, use of different politeness strategies, and use of different speech acts. Although a specific request is understood correctly, the different ways of producing it may cause wrong conclusions and wrong associations about the producer, his personality, his attitude, and his underlying purposes. 

Data demonstrates that people from Great Britain, Russia, and China/Japan use different communication processes and prime different phases of the speech act production process. Another way of putting the pragmatic differences is to say that business people from these five countries seem to conclude different contracts. Moreover, a detailed analysis of the use of apologetic expressions demonstrates that people from Great Britain, Denmark, Russia and China resolve conflicts in different ways.

Without this grant from the Carlsberg Foundation we would never have been able to get access to this huge amount of interesting empirical data from various countries with different languages and cultures which clearly shows crucial differences in communication, problem solving and conflict resolution. In short, these data has been a great inspiration and will continue to be so.


Durst-Andersen, Per. 2011a. Linguistic supertypes. A cognitive-semiotic theory of communication. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Mouton.

Durst-Andersen. 2011b. Bag om sproget. Det kulturmentale univers i sprog og kommunikation. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Durst-Andersen, Per (co-author Paul Cobley). To appear. The communicative wheel: symptom, signal and model in multi-modal communication.

Durst-Andersen, Per. To appear. Directives as communication-based problem-solving:

Imperatives, declaratives and interrogatives as different pragmatic ways to solve a problem.