‘Things done well, and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.’
– William Shakespeare, Henry VIII
As we all adjust to a strange ‘new normal’ of working virtually (virtually all of the time), we can reflect for a moment on how we are able to accomplish this through the common working language of English. April 23rd is United Nations English Language Day, and it marks the occasion of both Shakespeare’s birth and death. It is an opportunity to celebrate the language and its contributions to world culture. This is also a chance for us to recognize the incredible effort that people around the world bravely put into achieving English fluency in order to create opportunities for the future.
Never before has English been such a strategic necessity for organizations, powering collaboration and innovation by making information accessible, by including more voices in the discussion, and by sustaining social contact in times of distancing and uncertainty. It is doubtful, however, that anyone could have predicted just how much the common language of work would have also become another language of the international home, as we all take to remote working in the living room, kitchen, or garden shed. Families around the world are suddenly discovering that Dad isn’t funny in English either or that your partner has a surprising British accent. But the simple experience of seeing your nearest and dearest fearlessly logging on and carrying on is a powerful motivator for continued learning. English connects us personally and professionally, but it is a marathon – not a sprint – to master the language.
The struggle, as they say, is real. Learning any language requires playing a very long game. To go from beginner (A1) to advanced English (C1) – enabling you to lead others, represent your organization, and communicate accurately – requires anywhere from 600-1000 hours. This depends on your first language, access to teachers and other speakers, and the nature of the language needed. Professional roles that require natural and effortless communication in unpredictable, high-stakes situations need even higher levels of fluency (C2). However, around the world, school and university leavers may arrive in the workplace with just elementary (A2) or intermediate (B1) English. This level of language is often partly an outcome of years in school of teaching to particular exams: the range of vocabulary and speaking ability are often more limited than you would expect. That leaves a gap to fill, which falls to organizations to make up through workplace language training.
We can take heart that companies and governments do rise to the challenge of future-proofing their employees’ fluency. Given the cost and complexity of meeting language needs in global organizations, it pays to do this well, and with care. Through needs analysis and target level profiling, companies can better understand who needs what level of English fluency to be effective in their jobs. English language testing can establish the baseline for individuals and teams, which can be compared across companies, industry sectors, and even countries. A coherent language training policy can then be communicated to help L&D professionals support learning outcomes for both today’s needs and talent management for tomorrow, supported by real-time progress tracking to measure impact.
In the current global crisis, awareness and action have grown to ensure staff can take advantage of distance learning through the same tools they otherwise use to do their work. Companies, including EF, have worked to provide free online learning opportunities to organizations as well as key workers, such as the English for Angels program to provide online English courses to frontline medical workers in China. The governments of France and Colombia have stepped in with considerable support for online English language training to help workers continue their professional development. Such examples are an inspiration and highlight the importance of English language skills to make global connections wherever you are.
Words spoken well can only go so far, however. Behind every speaker (and home computer screen) is a complex tapestry of cultural values and perspectives that influence meaning and understanding. Given that the majority of the world’s 2 billion English speakers are English learners themselves, every interaction with international colleagues has the potential to miss the mark. Research on intercultural communication often considers individual (and group) preferences for behavior which may be unknown to the individual, who just knows what seems right or not. Raising our awareness of how we tick allows us to then see others in a new light, coming to appreciate how problems are approached or avoided.This is the essence of global competence, the capacity for knowing our unknown world, and developing empathy for its diverse members. This work literally begins at home, as we are now invited into each other’s spaces in video conference calls, suddenly glimpsing threads of that elusive tapestry.
On the occasion of United Nations English Language Day, let us recognize the brave effort of 2 billion of your neighbors and colleagues in studying the complex and often contradictory world of the English language. Whether the stuff of school exam nightmares or the joy of proposing a toast, our experience of learning and expressing ourselves in English is a shared one. We rely on it for professional communications and pub menus. It is the de facto language of business, research, science, aviation, and coding: our work depends on it. English is also an excellent companion for lifelong learning, a friend (or frenemy?) to help sharpen our skills, develop our talents, and explore new worlds. As we are drawn indoors during this time of crisis, the English language brings us together as we tell tales of what we are living.