Managing International Meetings—The Challenge of English Proficiency


December 2016

Managing International Meetings—The Challenge of English Proficiency

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Last issue, I reviewed Pam Brewer’s excellent book on global teams <>. In it, she discusses the challenges of misunderstandings when team members are not native speakers of English. Because English has become the lingua franca of high-tech industries, we expect all our team members to be skilled English communicators, even when English is not their first language.

In the November 2016 online edition of the Harvard Business Review, Minh Tran and Peter Burman published the results of their research into the English proficiency among participants from countries and industries around the world. They found that countries in which many professionals have considerable fluency and skill in English tend to be more innovative and generally have stronger economies. According to more than one research project, “Englishnization” provides a strong business benefit.  Businesses are able to sell their products in more economies, and their global teams are more effective. Better English skills appear to make companies more competitive and successful.

To collect data on English skills across the globe, Tran and Burman conducted a massive study, surveying 510,000 professionals across 16 major industries and 40 countries. Their study looked at people from more than 2,000 companies with a wide range of sales volume. The study was published in the third edition of the EF English Proficiency Index for Companies. <>

The researchers reported some very interesting results. Their overall conclusion is that we are far from being a English-speaking world. Individual skill levels, industries, and countries are widely different.

Their five high major conclusions are interesting:

  • Women have stronger English-language skills than men
  • Executives have poorer skills than the managers they oversee
  • Wide gaps exist across industries
  • Larger companies have better skills than smaller ones
  • Generally, English skills are low in most countries

Women Have Stronger English Skills

It appears that women have stronger English skills because in many countries, women have better educations. They have more years of education than men, often major in the humanities, and are more likely to be university graduates.

Executives Have Poorer English Skills

Across industries, most junior staff members had better English skills than the executives. Much of the difference is generational, with younger people having better English skills. But Tran and Burman conclude that the older executives may have difficulty directing English-speaking staff, reading reports, and leading meetings.

Different Industries Have Different Skill Levels in English

The highest skill levels occurred in professional consulting and in engineering fields but there was lots of room for improvement. The lowest scoring industries were in the military, education, and the public sector in general, possibly because these groups had fewer opportunities for contact with English-speaking professionals.

English Skills Differed Depending on the Size of the Company

Of course, many very large companies with revenues in the billions of dollars have a global presence, requiring more proficiency in English. However, the largest companies, many in traditional industries, have skills no better than mid-sized groups. These large, traditional industries may have less need for English skills. They may also compartmentalize the staff into country-specific roles more than newer industries are able to do.

Generally, English Skills are Low in Most Countries

Despite the fact that English skills increase corporate effectiveness, skills are still low. The highest English proficiency the researchers found was in the Netherlands; the lowest was in Iraq. The authors argue that the low scores need improvement, with effort made in countries and across industries to educate more of the workforce in communicating in English.

English is a Competitive Advantage

Tran and Burman make it very clear that being able to communicate in English is important in a competitive global market. Business leaders need to promote English language skills across the workforce and provide opportunities for individuals to improve their skills. Business leaders need to have in place a clearly focused language strategy.

The authors make several recommendations on pursuing a language strategy:

  • Measure the English skill levels of the workforce.
  • Motivate workers by linking English skill levels to individual business objectives and to overall corporate objectives.
  • Invest in English-language training for employees.
  • Ensure that English-language training is specific for the needs of a particular industry.

At the same time, those of us who are native English speakers must carefully follow Brewer’s advice. Slow down the communication in team meetings. Ensure that everyone understands what is being said. Help new colleagues learn the specialized vocabulary of your field. Follow oral presentations with transcriptions and notes. Each of these ideas will help everyone improve, including the native English speakers. CIDMIconNewsletter