Of all the skills required for success in today's business market, a strong command of the English language is a must. If you want to improve your communication skills, English will be at the foundation of that training. If you want to close sales, persuade people or lead your employees, your proficiency in English will be one of your greatest assets. Also, if you plan to expand your business to other regions of the world, you're going to find that English is going to be your most-used language.

The Importance of English in Business

English is not the most spoken language in the world, but when it comes to business, it is by far the most important. About 1 billion people speak Mandarin, but they are mostly concentrated in China. About 400 million people speak Spanish, primarily in Central and South America.

Only 360 million people speak English as their first language, but when you include those who speak it as a second language, the number soars to about 860 million, and they span almost the entire globe.

If you live in an English-speaking country like the United States, Great Britain, Canada or Australia, your business doesn't just depend on your fluency but also your proficiency in English. Poor grammar and a lean vocabulary can seriously undermine your influence with customers who take good English for granted, and if you plan to take your business overseas, you're as likely to need good English as you are at home.

Leaders Identify Strong English as Vital to Business Success

In any study or survey of business leaders, when asked what are the most important skills they are looking for today, English is invariably the underlying factor.

In a 2018 survey of 2,000 business leaders by LinkedIn, English was the foundation of the top three skills companies were looking for: leadership, communication and collaboration.

In a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73.4 percent of employers said they wanted job candidates with strong written communication skills. While the educational system has focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, 75 percent of employers stated that there should be a greater emphasis on written communication skills in college.

Importance of English in the World Today  

English is a requirement for more jobs in more countries than ever before in human history. Even 20 or 30 years ago, having a strong grasp of the English language was not as important as it is today. In the past, English was required in global companies only for senior management. Today, companies' clients and suppliers, their technical support teams and their own management can be spread across several countries.

The actual number of multinational companies in the world is difficult to estimate. One of the most recent surveys was completed in 2016 by EF Education First, which showed a 25 percent increase in the number of multinationals over the previous 10 years. In 28 non-English-speaking countries, 70 percent of the companies surveyed reported that English was important to their business, while 11 percent stated that it was the main language.

The disparity in English proficiency among industries has been narrowing, with the gap between the highest and lowest industries reduced nearly by half. Companies are investing more in English training, more adults are learning English on their own and more people are able to use English in the workplace. Some of the top industries relying on English, with fluency between 50 and 60 percent, include:

  • media
  • banking and finance
  • agriculture
  • information technologies
  • pharmaceuticals
  • consulting
  • travel and tourism
  • health care
  • engineering and construction
  • mining and energy
  • food and beverage
  • insurance

The Importance of English for Trade and Commerce

In global trade and commerce, including e-commerce, English today is a must.

Rakuten is a Tokyo-based e-commerce and internet company that reached a 90 percent market share in Japan. In order to keep the company growing, the company had to expand globally, which meant it would have to adopt English. The CEO gave the employees two years to learn English before they would be required to take an English proficiency test. Those who failed the test would be demoted.

In the following five years, Rakuten increased its user base from 200 million to 1.1 billion. They also increased their available talent pool. There are only about 20,000 engineers available in Japan, and with English, the company can now hire English-speaking engineers from other places in the world. In fact, only 20 percent of their Tokyo-based engineers are now Japanese.

The Importance of English in Non-English Countries

On a global scale, multilingualism in business simply doesn't work. Imagine negotiating a service contract with a multinational company and then finding out that each of their offices have different language requirements and that you would need to communicate with them in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Mandarin.

Because more companies work and trade globally, even companies working with each other in a non-English country are bound to come across language barriers if they don't speak English.

Tsedal Neeley, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School and author of "The Language of Global Success" tells a story of a group of French sales reps who went on a sales call to a French company based in Paris. Unbeknownst to them, the prospect had invited employees from other locations who did not speak French. The result was that they couldn't close the deal because they couldn't communicate. The company soon adopted English as a matter of corporate policy.

Business English and Levels of Fluency 

English fluency varies with each individual. Even native speakers can fail fluency tests if they don't have much education. Having business-level fluency in English means that you are capable of conducting business in English without needing someone else to translate or to interpret words for you. You are able to have conversations with co-workers, management, clients and suppliers as well as being able to read company documents and read and write emails.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages uses six levels for measuring language proficiency and fluency, with two levels in each of three categories.

Basic Breakthrough and Basic Elementary Levels

You can communicate with English speakers, provided they speak slowly and clearly. You can ask and answer simple and familiar questions.

Independent Intermediate and Upper Intermediate

These two levels indicate that you can communicate with native English speakers without difficulty. You can understand more complex text and sentences than those in the basic levels.

Proficient Advanced and Mastery Levels

These levels indicate that you can express yourself spontaneously without having to stop to think of the right words. You're also able to discern subtle meanings behind words and phrases within the context of the text or conversation.

How to Strengthen English Skills in the Workplace

EF Education First and EF Corporate Solutions have four recommendations for business owners and managers who want to strengthen their employees' skills in English.

Invest in English Training

English training should be viewed as a strategic investment in your employees and your company's future.

Test and Benchmark

English proficiency tests will give you an immediate indication of an employee's strengths and deficiencies.

Link English to Business Objectives

English training programs are much more effective when they are directly related to an employee's job, and employees are much more motivated to improve their skills.

Use Personalized Sector-Specific Training

Enrolling groups of employees in the same general English course will not address the different skill levels from one individual to another.