According to legend there was once a time when all people lived in a land called Babel and spoke the same language. Because of their arrogance they were punished by having their speech confused, and they scattered and dispersed into the thousands of mutually unintelligible tongues of today.
Throughout history there always seems to have been a default language for the convenience of international diplomacy and commerce. Greek once served this role in the ancient Mediterranean until it was displaced by the Latin of the expanding Roman Empire. Latin held sway throughout Europe until the Renaissance when the growing power and enviable culture of France made French the language of the ambitious and the trendy. English is now the default language of international commerce and science, not because it is any better for this role than any other language but because of a combination of historical factors that made first Great Britain and then the United States dominant presences on the world stage.
Anyone who has had to give a presentation in a language other than his own might look back with longing to the days of Babel, but there is no reason why this should prevent an effective and memorable presentation. I’ve heard plenty of native English speakers give bad presentations—rambling and convoluted—and just as many non-native speakers give outstanding presentations that were focused and powerful.
While listening to a Russian émigré give a particularly good talk, it struck me that having a limited grasp of English was almost an advantage for him: he was forced to prepare what he was going to say well in advance, practice it repeatedly, and use simple, clear language that anyone could understand.
On the other hand I recall more than one American with potentially excellent speaking skills squander them because he was afflicted with the Babel syndrome—the arrogance of the speaker who is proud of his grasp of a language, uses as many big words as possible, and doesn’t prepare, since he imagines he can ad lib his way through his talk.
Which would you rather hear? A well organized, well rehearsed presentation with clear, simple language or a rambling, semi-coherent talk by a “Babeler.” The ultimate example of this paradox was described by a scientist who said that one of the best presentations he ever witnessed was given by a Japanese researcher who spoke no English at all except to call out “hon!” to advance to the next slide. He didn’t need to talk: his vu-graphs were so well organized and so well illustrated and so clearly captioned that they were self-explanatory. The visuals aid did the talking for him.