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CAMBRIDGE STUDY CONFIRMS: Doing BUSINESS without English is unthinkable

Gerti von Rabenau

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"How important are English language skills?"

Asking that question seems to be strange in our globalized world. But according to my experience in language teaching and in my role as a language school owner, companies assume and expect that by now nearly all their staff should speak enough English to survive in business so that they do not need to invest in language trainings for their employees.

But is this kind of survival English enough for dealing professionally with your international partners? Or does winning this very important contract depend on more than just making yourselves understood in negotiations?

Fortunately the first global, cross-industry analysis of English language skills at work carried out by Cambridge English, QS and industry experts came up with some very interesting conclusions that clearly answer my questions above:

  1. English is and remains immensely important wherever you are in the world.
  2. And it will remain the language of business in both native and non-native English-speaking countries. Particularly in the latter countries more than 90% of employers consider English one of the most important requirements of their employees.
  3. This means all suppliers of language trainings as well as learners of all age can relax – their efforts and time are not in vain because the future importance of English as a world language seems to be guaranteed.

I would like to share the basic insights of this survey by summarizing the most important findings for all learners of English - employees, students and private language fans - as well as for all trainers who are involved in teaching this lingua franca. Let’s have a closer look:

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1. Which ENGLISH language skills are most important?

This question is certainly most relevant for all learners as in our hectic work life we have to focus on those skills that are most important for our professional communication. As in Europe the most common teaching method in both adult and children language education is the so-called communicative approach which comprises all four language skills (reading, writing, speaking & listening) plus the necessary focus on grammar, the answer to this question is probably highly appreciated by many language freaks, i.e. teachers and learners: As the Cambridge study mainly focuses on the most important skills in the business world , you will hardly be surprised to hear that reading clearly ranks first, closely followed by speaking. Of course, it is obvious that employees are most frequently confronted with texts in magazines and journals to keep informed and they definitely have to understand contracts, reports and specifications well enough to be able to communicate with their partners, read and carry out technical instructions or mails to do their job. On the other hand, it is not surprising that speaking is most important in service industries such as Travel, Leisure and Hospitality as well as in many other branches where real or virtual meetings take place on a regular basis, i.e. where social interaction plays an important role in the job on top of the professional qualification.

Of course, as the communicative approach is a holistic approach we can and will not ignore the two other skills reading and listening because they are interdependent. But it is good to know where to concentrate your efforts when it comes to fast and effective learning. The fact is that this method offers a wide range of teaching possibilities for the trainer to adapt to the specific needs of their students. Therefore any potential changes will probably focus on individual learning styles to adapt learning to the different aims and possibilities of students – which is definitely fostered by the increasing use of technical aids like apps, Internet, videos and other individualized means of teaching and learning.

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2. What do Employers expect from their Employees in terms of language skills?

It is certainly not surprising that there is a wide range of employers’ requirements between countries where English is the native or official language and those where this is not the case. Generally, the highest English language requirements are to be found in business sectors, such as Banking, Finance and Law, where publications tend to be written in complex and technical English. Whereas in Travel, Leisure, Hospitality, Transportation, Distribution and Utilities employees seem to manage communication more easily with everyday English, because any issues in understanding your customer or partner can be resolved on a more personal basis in relatively simple English. So this insight will be very helpful when it comes to designing your own course concepts for specific companies and their staff.

3. HOW MANY EMPLOYERS feel AN ENGLISH LANGUAGE SKILLS GAP?

The amazing result of this strange sounding question is that in spite of English being by far the most frequently taught and learnt language, in every industry surveyed there is still a clear gap between the English language skills required and those actually available. This clearly contradicts the above mentioned expectations of many employers that the English skills of their staff are sufficient to somehow survive in a business context.

Amazing is as well the fact that this skills gap exists in companies of all sizes. The survey stated that all of them have at least a 40% skills gap. It is interesting to note that in HR and Personnel, Accounting and Finance, Production and Logistics, where you need more specific vocabulary and complex technical terms, the skills gaps are the biggest, while in Marketing, Sales, and Customer Services these tend to be smaller, because here communication takes place on a more personal level. When looking at countries’ skills gaps it is not surprising that non-native English speaking countries like China, Japan, Russia and South Korea show the highest skills gap whereas they are smaller in Singapore and India where English is an official language.

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4. WHAT CONSEQUENCES OR BENEFITS DO these findings HAVE FOR EMPLOYEES?

Here is a clear point to encourage investing in language learning after school - unless you were a language geek at school and did everything to get very good grades – at university or privately during your vocational education because approximately 50% of all employers offer a better starting package to applicants with good English language skills. On top of other professional qualifications they can often be decisive when it comes to faster promotion and higher salary increases. These advantages are again most common in non-native English speaking countries such as Brazil, China and Chile.

5. HOW IMPORTANT ARE ENGLISH LANGUAGE SKILLS FOR RECRUITMENT?

The answer to this question should again encourage all younger learners or people looking for a new job to invest time and effort to prepare for a job interview and for a good international career:  Nearly all employers have at least one method of assessing English language competency when recruiting new candidates. The most common method is to interview applicants orally in English. In addition, over a quarter of employers use an externally created English language test which again confirms how important English language skills are and will be to employers.

That’s why we recommend to all our students to develop and take their own Learner autonomy seriously because thereby they can contribute to creating and designing a promising  professional future for themselves.

The full Cambridge English study can be found here: English at Work: global analysis of language skills in the workplace

By the way: On our Resources Page you will find lots of ideas for improving your English skills on your own.

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