Mac Watson saw the future of the English language aboard a jet about two years ago.
On a flight from Tokyo to Bangkok, Thailand, an Indonesian woman speaking fractured English couldn't make herself understood to a U.S. flight attendant.
But a Japanese passenger could tell what the Indonesian woman was saying.
She relayed the request in a form of English that the flight attendant could understand, Watson recalled.
The two non-Americans then joined with a Thai woman seated nearby to discuss — in English — what had just happened.
More evidence, he thought, that English as a second language has gained the upper hand. While English is the international language of business, it's no longer the U.S. version that everybody strives to speak.
More than 1 billion people use English as a second language (ESL) along a range from beginner to fluent speaker.
That's nearly three times the number who have learned it as their mother tongue, said Watson, director of the international MBA program at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. But the ESL version is simpler and without the slang and idioms that native speakers unconsciously use every day.
When Americans do business overseas, the burden to conform is now more on them, Watson said. If not, one non-native English speaker will find solace, and perhaps a business deal, with another non-native speaker.
Watson recalled when a Japanese bond trader came to Baldwin-Wallace so he could learn better English and thus better communicate with his American supervisor in Tokyo. But the bond trader and his Japanese associates had no problem doing business over the phone in English with Koreans, Thais and other Asians at their trading desks.
"The person that needed the training was the American," Watson told a small class on intercultural communication earlier this month at the college. "Not the Japanese."
American speakers of English can learn to speak it like a second language in part by watching their words.
A word like "right" has multiple meanings to Americans but may have only a single one to someone who has learned just the basics. Watson, who taught ESL classes for years in Vietnam and Japan, said directions are among the first things taught, so the word "right" is often understood only to mean the opposite of left.
Watson also cautions against using absurd assumptions, such as "suppose you were me" as a preface to a statement, because it's difficult for ESL speakers to form a mental picture of something contrary to fact.
Gary Yingling, director of business development for the Asia-Pacific region at Rockwell Automation, calls it using "good" English so as not to "lose and confuse." Americans speak a comfortable English that flows off the tongue and includes expressions like "flows off the tongue" — and that throws non-native speakers for a loop.
"Throw them for a loop," Yingling said. "There's another one."
American businesspeople will usually need translators to nail down the finer points of a contract. But when you're having conceptual discussions, it's better for the participants to use a common language, Watson said, and that's generally English.
Word selection is only part of the answer. Those who speak English as a second or third language often do so in the cadence of their mother tongue. More often than not, that means a more equal emphasis on syllables than the more accented English, Watson said. Speaking evenly can sometimes do more to make an American better understood than leaving out words or simplifying tenses, he said.
At Cleveland State University, Benoy Joseph, associate dean for academic affairs in the college of business administration, is sensitive to non-native speakers. He learned English as a first language while growing up in India, but speaks with an accent that can take a while to get used to.
"A lot of faculty have learned, themselves, that they have to slow down," he said. And while some want their foreign students to speak English like Americans, with the same accent and grammar, Joseph believes native speakers should try harder to understand those who speak it as a second language.
Chris Folino, who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Hong Kong helping U.S. companies get their products made in China, speaks Mandarin Chinese but often uses a form of "Chinglish," especially in and around Hong Kong, where the main dialect is Cantonese.
On a recent visit to the United States he was still dropping his adverbs and adjectives and eliminating his "a's" and "an's" when he got off the plane.
"When I taught English in Taiwan, I would never drop anything," he said, but time is money in the business world, and using only English nouns and verbs is often the clearest way to be understood.
But Watson counsels American speakers of English not to treat ESL speakers as if they are ignorant and to resist speaking like Tonto in "The Lone Ranger" — "Me go town."
It also shows respect to let them finish their sentences without interjecting words. Often, ESL speakers want to practice, and they like knowing they are being given enough time to make their point.
"If you just wait," he said, "many, many good things come to you."
This article was originally published by Newhouse News Service in August of 2003; the service closed in 2008.