HR not considering impact of language barriers

by Human Capital14 Jan 2014

Leaders who are concerned about the language barrier when sending work overseas may be perturbed by a recent analysis of English language competency. English continues to be the language of business; however, Latin American countries, in particular, lag in the ability to understand and communicate business information in English.

The language barrier has always been a concern for leaders sending corporate technology projects and support overseas, but the issue now appears to be more pronounced.

A provider of English language instruction, GlobalEnglish, tested non-native English speakers at companies in 76 countries over the course of 2011. It was found that after testing the application of English in different contexts, including email and phone, during presentations or sales meetings, and understanding of nuance and complexity in business situations, the average test score had declined since the previous year. “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,” Alex Lowrie from GlobalEnglish said.

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

The key data from the report included:

  • The leader in business English fluency was the Philippines. It was the only country to score at the intermediate level, indicating the ability to take an active role in business discussion and perform complex tasks.
  • India came in second, 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.
  • The worst performing of the biggest countries were Colombia, Brazil, Turkey, Japan and Mexico. There may be economic forces behind some of the lowest scoring countries. Both struggling economic powers—Japan, Italy and Mexico—and fast-growth emerging markets – Brazil, Columbia and Chile—scored in the business English beginner range.

Global talent is has become mobile, said Tom Kahl from GlobalEnglish, and for this reason, business English ineptitude can plague even native English-speaking countries such as Australia, the UK and the US.

Recent research by the London School of English (LSE) found that 98% of HR directors believe that their non-native English speaking staff can communicate effectively, yet many aren’t taking into account the need for additional vocabulary training (to include industry-specific jargon). “It's surprising that HR directors are so confident in the abilities of non-native English speakers who, when working in specialist professions, often need training in the specific vocabulary, phrases and jargon used by [certain professions],” Hauke Tallon from LSE said. “The English language is full of complexities and nuance which can impact on understanding, particularly in professions which interact with the general public,” Tallon added.

More than half of surveyed HR directors said that they did not believe that English spoken with a strong foreign accent would cause confusion or misunderstanding. Yet according to Tallon, a simple course can make the difference between clarity and confusion. “With the right training, it takes surprisingly little effort for someone with a competent grasp of English to soften their accent,” Tallon said.

The survey also found that 78% of HR directors did not believe it necessary to provide training to native English speakers in order to make them aware of their vocabulary when communicating with non-English speakers.

Tallon added that by not investing in cross-cultural, language and communications training, organisations may be risking their international growth opportunities.

Best Countries for English Proficiency (Non-Native Speakers)


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

Cote d'Ivoire
El Salvador
Saudi Arabia


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