With China’s growing economic might, is Mandarin becoming the preferred language of business? Not anytime soon, says a newly released study. Instead, English will maintain and grow its dominance, moving from “a marker of the elite” in years past to “a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.” (Indeed, the British Council reports that by 2020, two billion people will be studying English.) The new study of 1.6 million online test-takers in more than 50 countries was conducted by EF Education First, a company that – it should be noted – specializes in English language training.
The study is somewhat comforting for English speakers like me, who have struggled to master a foreign language. Indeed, the National Journal reports that only 10% of native-born Americans can speak a second language, compared to 56% of European Union citizens. (In the “credit for trying department,” I spent an hour composing two emails in French yesterday, an effort my Parisian colleague declared “adorable.”)
The ability to speak a second (or third) language is clearly important for becoming a global leader, as I’ve previously written. But – for better or worse – it seems that English may be the most essential language for global business success at the moment. Indeed, even in powerhouse China, more people are currently studying English than in any other country. An incredible 100,000 native English speakers are currently teaching there.
Here are the most intriguing takeaways from EF’s study, which have potential implications for future global development.
- Women speak better English than men – in almost every country worldwide. Increasing numbers of women are attending college, and they’re often over-represented in humanities classes compared to men. The net result? Women are speaking better English, and may find themselves well positioned to succeed in the global economy.
- International sectors use English, and local sectors don’t. If someone works in travel and tourism, for an international consulting firm, or in telecom, there’s a good chance they speak English. For instance, the Finnish telecom concern Nokia and the German business software company SAP both use English as their official language. In retail, not so much (which is why it’s so devilishly hard to communicate with shop clerks while traveling).
- European countries speak great English, Asian countries are in the middle, and everyone else lags. English speakers: do you ever get the sense that Scandinavians speak better English than you do? You’re probably right (as evinced by my attempt, years ago, to order an ice cream in Norwegian from a teenage streetcart vendor in Oslo, only to have him fire back – in perfect English – that I “probably ought to stick to English”). Scandinavians and the Dutch are the English-as-a-Second-Language superstars; as you move south through Europe, rates of proficiency decline but are still good. Asian countries, led by Singapore and Malaysia, scored solidly in the middle rung. And if you’re planning to visit Panama, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, or Libya, which bring up the rear, make sure you have your Google Translate app with you.
The hegemony of English is no excuse for monolingual native speakers to slack off (as I’ve written about here). But at least we’ll know, as we struggle to write our “adorable” emails in a foreign tongue, that our global colleagues will be making the same effort in reverse – and hopefully, in the end, we’ll all understand each other a bit better.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on October 26, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.