Immigration’s Effects on Language Learning in Business

March 8, 2016 Rosetta Stone Enterprise and Education

John McWhorter Immigration Language Learning web 300x222Recently, we published a blog post about the hottest trends expected to hit corporate learning in 2016. Two of those trends, language learning and international training, are affected by one undeniable fact: languages are always changing. And this modern, connected era may provoke the most drastic changes in language ever.

John McWhorter, a linguist from Columbia University and an author of several books, including The Language Hoax, recently contributed an article to The Atlantic about how immigration affects the language spoken in places where immigrants settle.

Skipping ahead in line

Every language has its peculiarities. Those are what tend to make the language challenging for outsiders to learn. But immigrants often do not have the time or resources to learn all of the intricacies of their new home language in its official, formal version. They need to be able to communicate quickly. So they, for lack of a better term, cut corners.

The latest observable trend, says McWhorter, is a renewed rise in multiethnolects, the dialects that come from huge immigration shifts. In his article, he starts with a description of Kiezdeutsch, a version of German that the country’s Arabic or Turkish immigrants have formed to iron out German’s idiosyncrasies, particularly when it comes to the verb “to be”. In Kiezdeutsch, “to be” is often just omitted, making the language easier to learn for the children of immigrants. Similar shifts are taking place in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Holland—all countries that have opened their doors to a growing Arabic or Turkish population.

With spikes in immigration from Syria, many linguists believe that Kiezdeutsch will become increasingly prevalent in Germany over the next several years or decades, perhaps to the point of having to know the multiethnolect to transact business.

The business implications

This is where language learning and international training come in.

Language learning is often approached as a static enterprise. Once a student learns a new language, they rarely consider that the language they learned might change over the course of a career. It’s not that the language becomes obsolete. It just morphs into new forms based on surrounding trends, usually assimilating new vocabulary and sentence structure.

Picture an American who learned German in high school. That training partially contributed to this worker being given an overseas assignment in Germany. Yes, the chances are that this businessperson will mainly interact with native-speaking Germans, who will use the language in a way much similar to what the employee learned in high school. But what if, twenty years from now, that same worker needs to transact business in immigrant communities, where Kiezdeutsch may rule the day?

Would the traditional speaker of German be completely unable to communicate in that neighborhood? No. Most of the vocabulary would be the same and the grammar won’t have shifted enough to where sentences are unrecognizable. Think of the trend as just another way to make traditional language less formal. There will still be instances that call for formal language, but having a more colloquial approach can be beneficial. A language learner would be unaware of that approach unless they kept up with the nuances of their second language. Continuing education, if you will. And as technology and immigration continue to change the boundaries of the world, these efforts will become more crucial.

How to become multiethnolectical

How would a corporate learner accomplish that education? There are some obvious and less-than-obvious ways.

Periodically brushing up on your language learning is obvious. Learning materials, particularly those that leverage online strategies, will be kept up-to-date with the changes in languages. Just as a worker would have to keep up with industrial certifications, they should stop in periodically for a refresher in their language skills.

If an employee spends a considerable amount of time in a country undergoing multiethnolect change, they should venture out of their comfort zone and converse with the people who are participating in the language revolution. Not only will they be clued in on language changes, but they will also be privy to cultural shifts that the country may be experiencing. All of this knowledge can only help the worker be more successful.

Finally, if they are not spending a consistent amount of time in the country of their second language, they should make an effort to keep up with the goings-on through news sources and any contacts they may have left behind. It’s hard not to know that millions of Syrian refugees are seeking asylum and a fresh start in Europe and other countries, but what is their effect on your particular country? In what industries are they finding work? How are they reshaping the culture? This applies to anywhere in the world where considerable immigration shifts are occurring (and there are several).

So what is the future of Europe’s multiethnolects? As McWhorter mentions, there are many places in the world where you can see the process working in later stages.

In particular, the Indonesian archipelago. Formal Indonesian overtook hundreds of languages as a part of the conglomeration process the country undertook as a whole, but those languages still live on—island by island—as multiethnolects. McWhorter can see a similar future in Europe, where in 50 years the multiethnolects taking root today will be commonly observed throughout the streets. They will not replace the formal version of the language; they will simply exist side-by-side. Embrace them, for this is a rare time in history where new languages are being created.

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