English, motherf****r: do you speak it?

By Angel Medinilla on July 5th, 2012

It’s happened again. I went to a conference in Sweden, delivered a half-day tutorial, facilitated a couple of “open spaces” (don’t ask), schmoozed a bit…  and was tagged with admiration as “the most English-fluent Spaniard they’d ever met”. Ugh. I’m that good. In fact, I’m pretty sure I suck enormously at speaking English. You should see my raw copy. But, as we say in Spain, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King”. Actually, I’m pretty sure they say that everywhere.

The thing is, I live in a country that has been considered the world’s second biggest foreign tourism market. Yet people can’t even give directions in semi-decent English. What’s worse, we actually make fun of the people who can speak it correctly, and are proud of our own weakness, considering ourselves smarter than the guiris – a Spanish semi-pejorative word for foreigners – even though they’re the ones spending their dollars on sangría and paella.

When Spanish companies are moved to export, they normally travel to South America, because of the language barrier and the slight whiff of superiority we still have over weaker South American economies. In turn, this means we consider ourselves inferior to the powerful northern European, north American and Asian countries – even as we refuse to learn their languages.

We are not alone. In Sweden, a Belgian guy told me that if you speak two languages, you are bilingual; if you speak three, you are trilingual; if you speak many, you are a polyglot, but if you speak only one… then you are probably French. The French are well known for not bothering with English. It’s usually claimed that this has a lot to do with French “chauvinism”.

Recently, my good friend and Kernel editor Alejandro Barrera and I were shocked when we traveled to StartUp Weekend Poznan to see the StartUp wannabes pitch. We were shocked because they did it in Polish. When we tried to explain to them this was a mistake, most replied: “Oh, but we are aiming for a local market, so we don’t need to speak English.”

It feels absurd to be preaching about this in 2012. If you’ve arrived this far in the tech scene without being fluent in English, it is probably through sheer luck, and I have bad news for you: the good times are over. Until China claims the world title – and possibly even after they do – English will still be the operating system of business. So if you want to survive in the start-up industry, you will want to follow Samuel L. Jackson’s advice.

Alejandro has already written about this issue once before. He noted that local markets are not enough any more. Local money is scarce, if not completely gone. Most capital is now global. Global competitors appear in shorter and shorter cycles, and what seems like a local opportunity today might get destroyed by others in a few short months if you don’t grow big enough to fight or get acquired.

I don’t want you to spend brain cycles working out who is at fault, whether it’s education systems, attitudes, culture or, in the case of Spain, a powerful dubbing industry that keeps us from getting shows and films in English. (No, really: this has a massive impact on young people.) What we need to do is preach to European tech companies and start-ups the importance of the English language.

Because until these companies learn to speak English, they are doomed.