Global Business English Skills Declining

IT leaders concerned about the language barrier when sending work overseas may not feel any better after seeing a new analysis of language placement test scores. Latin American countries, in particular, lag in the ability to understand and communicate basic business information in English.

The language barrier has always been a concern for IT leaders sending corporate technology projects and support overseas. And the issue may not be abating, according to the results of an online business English placement test recently given to 108,000 employees around the world.

GlobalEnglish—a Brisbane, Calif.-based provider of on-demand English language instruction to customers including Cisco, Procter & Gamble and GM—analyzed the results of testing done at 216 companies in 76 countries over the course of the last year. The test for non-native English speakers assesses not only knowledge of the language itself, but also language application across different media from email to phone, language use in different contexts such as presentations or sales meetings, and understanding of nuance and complexity in business situations.

Workers Understand Only Basic Information

Based on a scale of one to ten—with one indicating an ability to read and communicate using only simple questions and statements and ten representing an ability to communicate and collaborate in the workplace like a native English speaker—the average test score was 4.15, down 7 percent from 4.46 the previous year.

That translates to a population of workers who, on average, can understand basic information on the telephone or in person, but cannot comprehend most business presentations or take a leadership role in business discussions or perform relatively complex tasks, according to the scoring system.

Nearly four out of 10 of the global workers were ranked as business English beginners, meaning that they can't understand or communicate basic information during virtual or in-person meetings, read or write professional emails in English, or deal with complexity and rapid change. The majority of global workers (60.5 percent) from the represented countries scored between a 4.0 and 7.0—just below the intermediate level, indicating an inability to take an active role in business discussions or perform tasks such as presentation development and customer negotiations.

"It is likely that the 2012 [average] score is lower partially because more and more companies are being thrust into the global market at the early stages of their strategic efforts to advance their [fluency] so they can reach business goals," says Alex Lowrie, senior director of strategic account management for GlobalEnglish. " This increases both the number of companies and countries represented." However, Lowrie points out, the results from the most fluent 20 companies in the index actually increased, from a range of 5.25 to 7.54 in 2011 to 5.76 to 7.61 in 2012.

Philippines Tops the List

Of the top 30 countries by size of labor force, the clear leader in business English fluency was the Philippines, the only country to score at the intermediate level (7.11) indicating the ability to take an active role in business discussion and perform complex tasks. India came in second with a score of 5.57, indicating the ability to understand business presentations and communicate descriptions of problems and solutions, but not the capability to take an active role in business discussions or perform relatively complex tasks, followed by Canada (5.45), Indonesia (5.28), and the United Kingdom (5.24).

The worst performing of the biggest countries were Colombia (2.75), Brazil (2.95), Turkey (2.97), Japan (3.40), and Mexico (3.50). There may be economic forces behind some of the lowest scoring countries. Both struggling economic power—Japan, Italy and Mexico—and fast-growth emerging markets-Brazil, Columbia and Chile—scored in the business English beginner range.

Because global talent is so mobile today, says GlobalEnglish president Tom Kahl, business English ineptitude can plague even native English-speaking countries. The score for test takers in the U.S. (most of them non-native English speaking engineers and scientists) fell to 5.09 this year from 6.9 in the previous year.

Professional Services Top the List

Analyzing the results by industry, professional services garnered the highest average score (5.19) followed by financial services (4.68), both up slightly. The tech industry—one of the top three in the previous year—dropped from 5.2 to 4.5 this time.

"The continued presence of professional services at the top of the rankings is not surprising, as these businesses by their very nature deal with external communications and personal interactions more often than other industries and therefore require strong communication skills," says Lowrie, pointing out that the top scoring company overall for the second year in the row was a customer service outsourcer.

Ten Best Countries for English Proficiency (Non-Native Speakers)

  1. Philippines
  2. Norway
  3. Serbia
  4. Slovenia
  5. Australia
  6. Malaysia
  7. India
  8. Lithuania
  9. Singapore
  10. Canada

Ten Worst Countries for Business English Proficiency (Non-Native Speakers)

  1. Armenia
  2. Cote d'Ivoire
  3. Taiwan
  4. Honduras
  5. Columbia
  6. Chile
  7. El Salvador
  8. Saudi Arabia
  9. Israel
  10. Brazil

Source: Global English Business English Index 2012

Stephanie Overby is regular contributor to CIO.com's IT Outsourcing section.

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