The problem of ESL in the boardroom

by Terence MacNamee

In the business world, there is a saying that “he who owns the office, owns the meeting”. This means that if an executive can get people to meet in his space, he can dictate the agenda and the outcome to a great extent. But you could also say “he who owns the language owns the meeting”. If the meeting is held in your language, you have a similar home-team advantage to the manager who gets others to meet on his turf. This can be observed in international get-togethers, even of people belonging to the same company.

Holding such meetings in English may sound like a cool thing to do, but it hands power to any Anglo-Saxon there. This is seen in meetings of international companies where people from different countries are hammering out issues and, more often than not, competing with each other for resources. Many such meetings result in the English-speakers getting what they want, like larger budgets, and the others not getting a look in because they do not express themselves with sufficient facility, or do not take up enough space, signalling their power and importance in the manner appropriate.

What can be done about this, given that, in international companies and associations today, English is likely to be the only common language? What you need is an amicus curiae, a “friend of the court”, not an actual party to the process, who ideally knows the language(s) and culture(s) of the participants, but who is a literate English speaker and can express things quickly and effectively in English too. He can level the playing field by compensating for linguistic inequality and ensuring that all voices are heard. He is the one who gets everything down. I call this role the rapporteur.

The role of (meeting) rapporteur is known, notably in U.N. organizations, but it is usually a passive role, and is often confined to getting down conclusions after the fact. That kind of rapporteur is “seen and not heard”. The rapporteur role as I mean it is activist. This rapporteur intervenes to get clarity and full expression from all the participants, thus preventing viewpoints and ideas being lost or drowned out by louder voices.

The rapporteur, as his name suggests, is there to report on the meeting. He is a listener. He writes in real time, that is, while the people are talking. The way I do it, he shows the progress of the discussion projected overhead from a beamer device attached to his computer. So the participants are getting intermittent feedback about how the meeting is evolving, what has been said, and they get to clarify what they and others have said – without being able to censor it, which is always a temptation. Just after the meeting, the report circulates, for further discussion off-line if necessary. (More details on this on my author page.)