Cultural intelligence

 
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Which nations speak English best?

Which countries have the best facility with the international language of business? Proficiency in English remains highest in northern Europe but lags in some parts of Asia. A recent study sponsored by the British-based network of language schools, EF Education First (EF), found that Norwegians, Danes and the Dutch have the highest English-language proficiency of any non-English people, while the Thais, Turks and Kazakhs have the lowest proficiency.

 

The ability to communicate in English remains a business requirement in a global economy. The language has no other peer in so many places around the world. A second report on language, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, says nearly half the 572 executives at global companies who were interviewed believe language barriers have actually spoiled cross-border deals and caused financial losses.

 

In Asia, competence in English is equally mixed and the report uncovered a few surprises. Malaysia ranked first among Far East countries and ninth overall. Malaysia, where English is used as a lingua franca between that country’s Malay and Chinese populations, scored the highest in proficiency out of any country outside Europe.

 

Other Asian nations ranked moderately proficient while others fell into the “low” and even “very low” proficiency groupings. Among the lowest was Taiwan, and China. Despite the large number of global firms that outsource English customer-service responsibilities to India, it also ranked poorly. Vietnam and Thailand also trailed the list. Kazakhstan placed last. The report states that lower proficiency was often linked to lack of education reform and funding.

 

While Hong Kong was also an outpost of the British Empire, its English proficiency levels have foundered in recent years. This partly stems from the rise of teaching Mandarin in schools, to accommodate the region’s increasing business integration with Mainland China.

 

According to the EF report, South America generally scored the lowest as a region, due in part to lower education standards. Argentina ranks as the best amongst these countries. Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela trailed behind Argentina dramatically. Panama and Colombia were positioned very low. Another reason for the low scores, the report says, is that Latin America’s traditional international trade was largely restricted to South America itself, where Spanish served as the international language and that habit carries over to today.

 

Globalization is the key driving force behind English increasingly becoming the language of business and as a result a large pool of English-speaking workers is also essential in order for multinationals to function well and to prevent financial losses.

 

The Economist Intelligence Unit report found that nearly half the survey respondents blame communication misunderstandings for standing in the way of a major multinational transaction, which lead to a significant financial loss for their company. This response was higher among respondents from Chinese and Brazilian companies especially. As well, over three-fifths of companies surveyed said cross-border communication misunderstandings often resulted in lost productivity. Among Brazilian managers in particular, the figure rose sharply to 77%.

 

Despite these challenges more than 75% of the companies surveyed said they plan to have an operational presence in more countries over the next three years. Language and custom challenges, however, were complicating international plans according to 89% of the respondents.  There are indications, the EF study found, that English will continue to serve as a lingua franca. Over the next decade, it says, as many as two billion people may be learning English at any one time.

 

How is your English?

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