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Poorer business English may hit competitiveness

Published on Friday, 01 Jun 2012

Hong Kong's employees are getting by with only a basic command of Business English, the Global Business English Index (BEI) has found. They can understand business presentations and communicate descriptions of problems and solutions, but struggle when asked to play an active role in business discussions or perform relatively complex language tasks.

The BEI, based on a survey of 108,000 employees in 216 global corporations in 76 countries, is conducted annually by GlobalEnglish Corporation, a US provider of on-demand English language instruction to global corporations.

Respondents - non-native English speakers working in global corporations - were given business English placement tests to assess their knowledge of the language, its applications across different media - from e-mail to telephone and in person - its use in different contexts such as presentations and sales meetings, and understanding of nuance and complexity in business situations plus the ability to contribute to discussions involving business problems, analyses and solutions.

The results were tracked into four levels of proficiency on a scale of one to 10, ranging from beginner (1-3), basic (4-6), intermediate (7-8), to advanced (9-10), with 1 representing the ability to read and communicate using simple questions and statements, and 10 representing mastery with native-speaker proficiency.

Hong Kong scored 5.38 and China 4.4, falling within the band of basic competency. India secured 5.56, Russia 3.6, and Brazil 2.29. Singapore, which came third in worldwide TOEFL test scores last year, secured just 5.56. The Philippines topped the rankings at 7.11. None of the 27 countries made it into the advanced league. The average 2012 BEI score was just 4.15 - a 7 per cent decrease from the 2011 score of 4.46.

Mahesh Ram, CEO of GlobalEnglish, attributed the low scores to business expansion rather than a decline in standards.

"More companies are expanding into regions where there is no spoken English. There is a shortage of English language skills in these areas, and so they are having to recruit people who three to four years ago they might have never thought to recruit" Ram says.

Such changes have affected Western countries, with the US scoring just 5.09 and the UK 5.24.

"Today, the non-native speaker makes up about 70 per cent of the employee population of the global workplace, against 30 per cent a few years ago. Workplace skills have changed dramatically - the pressure on business English skills is increasing."

Ram said of Hong Kong and mainland China: "If you are looking to compete on a global scale, or if you are an individual who wants to be a global business person, you should be looking at a BEI skill level of 7-8. As Hong Kong and China grow as global hubs and Chinese companies expand outward, the pressure on English skills will increase. The lack of business English proficiency is a barrier to competitive strength."  

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