The English Proficiency Index for Companies 2012, published on 13 November by Education First, a privately owned education company, shows employees around the globe broadly struggling with English.
The survey was conducted among 115,000 employees and 1.7 million adults in 24 countries and spanned a broad range of companies with an annual turnover ranging from under $1 million to over $100 billion.
It showed a significant English skill deficit in almost every group evaluated, including retail groups, food, beverage and tobacco, logistics, energy and mining, public sector, education and manufacturing industries.
Unsurprisingly, workers in the travel and tourism industry came out on top of ranking, followed by consulting. But even there, English ability only reached “intermediate” level in most cases.
In the vast majority of countries, the average workforce has English proficiency skills that only allow for basic interaction, meaning they can take part in discussions on familiar topics.
The only groups with an average skill level adequate for complex, in-depth interaction on technical subjects within their specialty are the national workforces in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
In the Czech Republic, Japan and Russia, the employees scored worse than the national average.
This was broadly true for two-thirds of the countries surveyed, where the average level of English proficiency in the workforce is even lower than in the population as a whole.
Analysing the results, Education First said one possible reason is that adults in full-time employment are often too busy to organise training outside work hours. Another explanation is that individuals are becoming complacent in their current positions and do not feel the need to build up their skills, it said.
"The findings of the EF EPIC will undoubtedly be of significant concern to business leaders around the world because employee proficiency in English, which after all is the lingua franca of cross-border business, is essential to achieving international commercial success,” said Andy Bailey of EF Corporate Language Learning Solutions.
“With a challenging business environment in almost every corner of the world now, and tougher and tougher competition for overseas market share, it’s absolutely essential for business leaders to ensure their workforce has the language and communication skills to stay ahead.”
Frequent exposure needed
In higher-proficiency countries, English communication is taught seriously in school at all levels, and applicants for office jobs are expected to speak English regardless of their position.
Any unqualified graduate will therefore have to undertake undertake the necessary training to raise his or her English skills in order to find employment.
Moreover, television and movies are not often dubbed, ensuring frequent exposure to a variety of English accents in everyday contexts from childhood and onwards.
Northern Europe and parts of Central Europe have higher proficiency workforces, while the lower proficiency workforces can be found in parts of Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.
Among the countries found in the middle, Spain has implemented extensive education reform to promote English learning, but these reforms are too recent to have touched most of the adult population.
Germany requires English of all students, but most media are dubbed, limiting their everyday exposure. The Czech Republic only introduced the teaching of English in school after the end of the Cold War, and subtitled American sitcoms and movies arrived around the same time.
In China, professionals try to make up for the outdated teaching methods used in school by enrolling in English-training courses in their spare time.
In lower-proficiency countries, English is taught as a secondary academic subject in school, often using outdated methods because English is not considered an essential skill for employability and even well-educated adults will readily admit that they do not speak the language.
Television and films are usually dubbed, restricting exposure to English to school classrooms and corporate meeting rooms. As the companies cannot use English as a key criterion in selecting new employees, only a few applicants qualify, the survey shows.