Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HAS ENGLISH become the world’s lingua franca? I offer two examples of this—and dispel one folk legend. A nuanced example involves computer science. A recent one definitively pertains to a Japanese automaker. The folk legend is in the world’s skies.


Some background. The term lingua franca describes a means of communication between speakers of different languages. It might, but need not be, a native language of either one. The term derives from Italian, lingua: language; franca: Frankish, in the sense of generically Western European people, the Franks.

The concept of a common tongue is older than the term. Aramaic was a lingua franca of the Middle East for a thousand years before it was likely the language that Jesus Christ used the most. The Roman Empire had Latin and Greek as lingua francas. French served as the lingua franca for international diplomacy to the point that many think “franca” refers to French. Today, throughout Oceania, Pidgin is something of a lingua franca.

Mathematics, by its very essence, is a lingua franca of science, with English evolving as a supporting tongue. And, reflecting their originators’ native language, computer science and its underlying software have been English-focused.

However, there are nuances. The French, for example, have their Académie française to keep the language from being souillé (defiled). Some computer loan-words are approved; site web, for instance. Other computer jargon has preferred French etymology: hameçonnage (literally, fish-hooking) for “phishing.”

By contrast, the Polish take the sound, but not the spelling: dzojstik (joystick).

Languages with different alphabets present other challenges. Computer Russification, for example, needs coding for Cyrillic characters; similarly for Arabic, Chinese, Hangul (Korean), Hindi, Hebrew, Japanese and so many others. Unicode (as in Universal Character Set) arose in 1987 as an extended ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), designed to encompass characters of all the world’s living languages.


Note, the Unicode Consortium website is in English.

On an entirely different note, come the year 2020, English becomes the official language, the lingua franca, for all inter-regional communications of Honda. The Japanese automaker has operations all over the world, and within a given unit, in Brazil, say, Portuguese will still be allowed. However, if a Brazilian engineer communicates with a colleague at Honda Deutschland, they’ll be required to speak English.


According to Automotive News, July 13, 2015, “Japanese employees account for 32 percent of Honda’s global work force of 204,730. That share is shrinking.”

As an example, last year Honda hired 4778 people in North America; it added 719 in Japan. The company said it’s expanding its employee language training and making English proficiency a requirement for promotion to the management level.

Last, I have first-hand knowledge in countering a bit of English lingua franca folk lore, namely in international air traffic control. Growing up, I found jingoistic pleasure in believing that an Aeroflot pilot and Moscow ATC conversed with each other in English.

Then, in 2004, I flew United Airlines from Los Angeles to Shanghai. Along the way, I listened to ATC on United’s audio channel reserved for this purpose. There wasn’t a lot of chatter mid-flight, but I wanted to hear the goings-on as we approached Shanghai.

The chatter was all in Mandarin Chinese until our United captain announced our presence in English. Then, and only then, Shanghai ATC responded in less than completely fluent English—for our flight only. Plenty of other communications described lots of other flights converging into Shanghai, but, unless our captain spoke Mandarin, their actions were unknown to us.


The International Civil Aviation Organisation “has decreed that from 1 January 2008 all Air Traffic Controllers and Flight Crew Members engaged in or in contact with international flights must be proficient in the English language as a general spoken medium and not simply have a proficiency in standard ICAO Radio Telephony Phraseology.” Note the date, 2008.

A bit puzzling, there’s an amplification of Amendment 164 to Annex 1: “Therefore, pilots on international flights shall demonstrate language proficiency in either English or the language used by the station on the ground. Controllers working international services shall demonstrate language proficiency in English as well as in any other language(s) used by the station on the ground.”

Thus, it appears English is the ATC lingua franca provided one works on the ground, but that Aeroflot pilot can still speak his русский over Moscow, or 普通话 over Shanghai. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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