The language we use defines our national identity and culture. In the UK most of the people living in Wales can speak English but under the 1993 Welsh Language Act all public-sector websites that contain information relevant to Wales have to be in English and Welsh. Certainly English is a very useful default language, and it is fairly easy to work with around 850 words. The other 1 million are just there to confuse everyone, including many native speakers.

In the USA if you are asked to slate a meeting you know that you will need to set a date and perhaps the attendees and agenda. In the UK if you asked me to slate a meeting I’d ask you which meeting you wanted me to criticize.

How can the same word have totally different meanings? The US usage is derived from a French word meaning "to splinter," which is what slate does when it is mined. The UK social usage is derived from an Old Norse word "sletta" meaning "to slap."

Social Language

Most of the surveys about the use of social media assume that all the respondents speak good social English, and so will have no problems in sharing their knowledge. One survey that does indicate that there is a problem is the Digital Workplace Trends 2012 report which indicates that 10% of organizations have culture and language issues in collaborative work. My guess is that the scale of the problem is understated because at a local/national level staff find work-arounds and don’t bother to tell HQ.

I would go so far as to suggest that few managers are aware of the significance of the level of understanding of English is in their organizations. In the USA there is a five-level categorization of language skills and there is a six-level categorization in the European Union. These categories take account of the variations in skills and experience needed to read, write, speak and understand a language. Someone might be able to read English fairly fluently, speak it to a limited extent, just about get the sense of what someone is saying in English at normal conversational speeds and have great difficulty writing in English.

This might well be a significant problem with social media where the language can be highly conversational, and writing even something as short as a blog entry in English could be a substantial challenge to a non-native speaker. If you need evidence read Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-138 entitled "Walking Through Jelly -- Language Proficiency, Emotions and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work" and then consider whether the use of corporate English for social communications in international organizations is a sensible strategy.

Keyboard Challenges

Another aspect that I suspect is overlooked is the challenge of using a non-English keyboard to contribute content in English. Every language has a unique letter frequency and often requires diacritic marks to be added to letters. Writing English on a non-English keyboard can be very time-consuming because your fingers are not used to the letter sequences in English words. As a result there could be a substantial barrier to the easy contribution of content assumed by the people in corporate headquarters that set up the social intranet.

Finding People to be Sociable With

Another assumption that is explicit in discussions about the benefits of social media is that you can easily find the people that it would be useful to be sociable with. The problem is that most countries have well-established ways of presenting given and family names. If you are looking for Karl van den Berg will they be listed under V or B? “Have a word with Christian in the Stockholm office” but will you find him under C or K? The Swedish letter Å comes after Z and not after A, and reproducing it as A totally changes the sound and meaning of the word. Basis Technologies have a good paper on the challenges of listing Arabic names, where multiple transliteration schemes add to the problems of building directories that respect the names of employees.

Look Beneath the Surface

My experience from working in nearly 40 countries is that local employees find ways around the "corporate English" mandate that are almost certainly not visible to headquarters. These employees have to work in their native language for anything that resembles a contract or a compliance requirement, and of course for social communication with their colleagues. They may be able to converse on the telephone in English because the feedback they get enables ambiguities to be sorted out in real time. This will not be the case in social language situations, and some research into the situation in your organization may be timely.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: