What Language Should Startups Speak?

European Straits #148

Hi, it’s Nicolas from The Family. Today, I’m reflecting on the importance of mastering foreign languages, especially English, if we ever want to grow successful tech companies in Europe.

Last week was dominated by the GovTech Summit in Paris, where I moderated a panel about regulatory innovation. Since the panel was not filmed, I thought I’d share my past writings on the question of regulation in a time of paradigm shift:

Now as I reflect on how to make Europe stronger in the Entrepreneurial Age, I keep coming back to the hard question of languages. Basically my view is that Europe is lagging behind because we speak so many different languages here. And sure, English should be the lingua franca that makes it easy for Europeans to communicate with one another. Alas, so few people master it, especially people in rather large, non-English-speaking European countries such as Germany and France. Read along 👇

1/ I’ve long been obsessed with foreign languages. I grew up speaking only French, then had hours of useless language classes in high school. Later, I got rather serious with learning German. And now I obviously can speak and write in English, but I often have to pause to reflect on how best to convey my thoughts; I make the occasional mistake (which my colleague Kyle is kind enough to correct when it’s in written form); and I’ll never be able to speak with a perfect accent, which is a shame (and a bit of a mystery—why are accents so difficult to erase?). Maybe I could have done better. It’s true that I never lived outside France until the age of 21, and my family never travelled much. Yet several relatives have always lived abroad. And as I grew up, my grandfather Xavier, a devout Catholic, was dutifully learning Italian from his home in Normandy so as to be able to read L'Osservatore Romano and to listen to Radio Vaticana! So I didn’t lack role models—people close to me who were mastering foreign languages.

2/ Languages are interesting because they explain so much of what is going on—namely, who wins and who loses—in the Entrepreneurial Age. I even wrote a long article about it once. And yet we barely discuss it. You’ll find many, many articles about Europe lagging behind in tech entrepreneurship because of (you choose) taxes, the safety net, a culture averse to entrepreneurship, regulations, big government, etc. Not one of these articles mentions the simple fact that tech entrepreneurship is difficult here because we Europeans speak 24 different languages (and contrary to what you may think, very few among us speak more than one language). If you reflect on the consequences when it comes to hiring, expanding, and marketing (not to mention pitching venture capitalists), you realize why it’s so hard to build a successful tech company with a truly pan-European footprint.

3/ The language problem is especially verboten in the realm of government. To my knowledge, only Singapore has a policy designed to promote language diversity and mastering English at the same time. Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Father of Singapore, designed that policy using two key principles. On one hand, he thought English should be everyone’s native language because it was the best language both to connect Singapore to the rest of the world and to facilitate communication among citizens from different ethnic backgrounds (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) without elevating one local language over the others. On the other hand, Lee also thought that everyone should be fluent in their own local language, because it’s by speaking your parents’ tongue that you can be proud of your identity, revel in your own culture, and become stronger and more assertive in your relationships with others.

4/ How do you prepare children for a world where they’ll have to interact with people speaking different languages? My wife Laetitia and I have crafted our own answer: we want our children to live in several countries prior to reaching adulthood, and each time we register them in a local school where they only speak the local language. That is what we did five years ago when we moved from Paris to London (and both our kids are now bilingual—even speaking better English than French). And this is what we’ll do again next year, probably moving to Germany and providing our children with an opportunity to become trilingual at an early age (our eldest just turned 11). Indeed early exposure is critical if you want people from a given country to make their way in English, or German, or Mandarin, or any other foreign language which you deem relevant. You might know the story of Henry Kissinger, who speaks perfect English with a very thick accent (which has since become a trademark) while his younger brother, who arrived in the US at exactly the same time, speaks English like a native-born American. 

5/ A key factor in some populations’ difficulties in mastering English seems to stem from movies being dubbed in the local language as opposed to being subtitled. In the latter case (subtitles), you can read if you want to understand everything, and yet you’re still hearing so much English that your ear adjusts and it’s easier to learn it once you need it (this is what happens in places such as the Netherlands or Scandinavia). In the former case (dubbing), you may watch mostly Hollywood movies, but the English disappears altogether, which means that (i) the original actor’s performance is ruined by a bad local voice actor, and (ii) you don’t get used to listening to English and the cause of language is lost.

6/ Why don’t we get rid of dubbing in favor of subtitles in countries such as France, Germany, and Spain? My view is that no one involved has an interest in imposing subtitles. Take the case of France. The government doesn’t want to impose more English on the public because it would be seen as a blow against the French language, a matter of national pride. And the entertainment industry wouldn’t want that, either, because in the presence of subtitles they would fear a drop in attendance in movie theaters and in front of TV screens. After all, education (and business) should never get in the way of making money off entertainment! And because France and Germany are rather large countries, paying voice actors to dub every English-speaking movie is an investment worth making. 

7/ Is it really such a big problem? After all, we Europeans long went without speaking the same language and the economy seemed to get along just fine. Why is it that now countries where people have a hard time mastering English seem condemned to lag behind? One reason, I think, has to do with the shift in how the US exerts its soft power. As I explained in my 2016 paper, during the Cold War it was considered critical for the US to strengthen its relationship with key allies such as France and Germany, and some Americans learning the local language was a key part of that effort. But when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War effectively ended (almost exactly 30 years ago), Americans decided that from then on it would be up to the rest of us to learn English in order to do business with them. Some countries managed to keep up and trained their entire population, in no small part with the help of those subtitled Hollywood movies. Others, including France and Germany, didn’t even realize that not speaking English would cut them off in the world of business and ideas, and today they’re paying the price.

8/ Another reason why it’s more important to learn foreign languages today is that people move around more. One factor is the falling cost of international travel, which means that it’s become so much more common to travel to a country where they don’t speak your language—and one handy option is to learn some English to make your way there. Another factor is, unexpectedly, the weakening of the welfare state. Basically, when a young French worker is offered employment in, say, London or Amsterdam, they won’t ask for an expensive expatriate package that would make them contribute to the French pension system. Instead, they simply don’t care about that anymore because they don’t expect the system to remain solvent over the long term! And so they accept being employed under British or Dutch labor laws, thus weakening the link to their home country, lowering the probability of their ever coming back, and creating a stronger incentive to learn the local language (or English at the very least).

9/ A third reason why languages have become more critical is that today’s economy is less about goods and more about services. This is even truer with software-driven products. Because it’s all about companies leveraging the power of networked users, it is critical to inspire trust and engagement. In the past, you could trade at a global scale simply by sticking the right labels on those packaged goods. Today, you need to create a relationship based on trust, and trust is built by addressing people in their own language. More and more companies are learning to tackle that challenge by designing products for users that speak a plurality of languages: just look at the examples of Netflix and Marie Kondo

10/ Luckily, this is a challenge all startups can tackle. There are more and more tools to help people communicate across language barriers. Travelers in Mainland China use translation apps to decipher menus written in Mandarin and communicate with restaurant waiters. But beyond that, we can envision a whole industry designed to help people learn languages and communicate across borders—what I once called a “diplomatic industry”, with “copywriters, content producers, community leaders, English coaches, public speakers, translators, and journalists”. Indeed there are more and more tech companies in that field, such as Preply, a marketplace for learning foreign languages with tutors, which has grown at a global scale from its base in Ukraine, Spain, and Germany. Another, smaller-scale example is Solodou, one of of our portfolio startups, which is dedicated to helping refugees learn to write in French. Its founder, Ousmane, experienced first-hand just how critical that skill was to crafting a new life in France, and it’s a lesson that I believe we all should take. If Solodou can teach French to recent immigrants, why shouldn’t an entire industry be able to arise to teach proper English to anyone joining the startup world in Europe?

The main problem, viewed from a European perspective, is that we’re still lacking a shared culture that makes it easier for people from different countries to work together even if they don’t master the same language. As good as the Erasmus program is, it is restricted to the realm of the traditional university. So on a larger scale, we’re still facing that old chicken-and-egg problem: Do we lack a healthy pan-European ecosystem because people speak different languages and don’t have English in common? Or do people resist mastering English because we’re still lacking a pan-European ecosystem? Let’s fight on both fronts and move forward!

Please scroll down for interesting readings about languages and doing business across borders.

🍑 One place I’ve seen the power of language in the startup world is with one of our longest-running events at The Family, Pitch Don’t Kill My Vibe. Pitching your startup, especially in English, is not an easy task for European founders. But it is something that you can practice, and our Paris event manager Vlad gives his tips for creating the right rhythm while pitching your startup (including a few bonus lessons from his days as a battle rapper): Nailing your startup pitch: The right emotions at the right time.

🤝 Over the past 18 months, thanks to my colleague Zineb, we’ve been very active in creating spaces and discussions between politics and entrepreneurship (efforts that likely come as no surprise to regular readers of this newsletter). We now have a dedicated YouTube channel for Public Affairs, where you can see videos of all those events. The latest includes my talks with French Member of Parliament Paula Forteza (in 🇫🇷) and ex-CIA analyst and writer Martin Gurri (in 🇬🇧).

💰 One of our portfolio startups had an excellent fundraising round in a field that is still in the process of moving into the digital age—home insurance. Luko just raised $22M to bring well-crafted service back to an opaque industry: Luko Raises 22 Million To Improve Health Insurance.

💻 The Family is involved in a new venture, together with an entrepreneur who we know well, Cyril Paglino. We all came together to launch The Garage last week, a new community and space to bring together ambitious blockchain startups from across Europe: The Garage Is a New Blockchain-Focused Incubator Based in Paris.  

📰 Finally, I’d just like to note that each week brings more and more (English-speaking) media focused on European tech, which is a very good sign! There’s the excellent Financial Times-backed Sifted, where I’m a columnist. There’s the new Soaked by Slush, in which my co-founder Alice was interviewed (see A Devious Problem Killing European Startups). And then there’s a newcomer that we at The Family find very good: Reflexive and their daily Close of Business newsletter.

Here are more readings about languages and business:

From London, UK 🇬🇧