Language September 2011

Success in Business English

What’s inhibiting your firm and staff?

Foreign business people often complain about the low level of spoken English among their Japanese contacts, while human resources managers at Japanese firms complain that employees’ English is inadequate. However, on the basis of having taught English and run corporate training programmes in Japan over the past six years, I know this is not true.

The average level of spoken English among Japanese employees is quite good, especially when compared with that of employees in other Asian countries. Yet Japanese employees struggle in international business situations. Why?

Subject vs. skill

One reason is the way Japanese people and HR managers view English. Traditionally, the Japanese see English as a subject to be studied as one might study engineering or mechanics. Unfortunately, communicating in a language is a skill that is acquired; not just a subject to be learned. Attaining that skill requires practice until one gets it right.

It is rather like learning to drive: one doesn’t study how the engine works but, rather, gets in the car, listens to the instructor and drives the car. Learning a language follows the same principles—and, with practice, students can be “driving” in no time.

Language testing vs. real-life communication

Another reason that employees have difficulty with English is that, despite taking tests and showing gradual improvement, when it’s time for that important international business meeting, they open their mouths and nothing meaningful comes out.

This common problem shows that HR managers and business people should not rely on traditional testing to forecast success in international business.

While exams can tell us the level of English knowledge a person has, they do not tell us how that person can use English in the real world. These days, with more English spoken between non-native than native speakers of the language, the ability to communicate effectively is paramount.

Language vs. cultural awareness

The cultural divide is the third—and, perhaps, the most important—reason that many Japanese employees are stumped by English. The way business is done in Japan is very different from how it is done in most other countries. How people interact in meetings, how presentations are structured and delivered, as well as how reports, emails and proposals are written, are all likely to cause Japanese people far bigger problems than are caused by the English language. Thus, an intermediate-level English speaker with the necessary business skills and cultural understanding can produce a more effective presentation than an advanced-level speaker who lacks those skills and understanding.

Solutions for HR managers

Look very closely at the reason your staff need to use English in their work. Then, draw up training plans that not only improve the overall level of English, but also equip people with the cultural awareness and business skills they need, so that staff will be able to use what they learn in class the next day at work—and the firm will see positive results from day one.

Solutions for Japanese business people

Stop studying the mechanics of English and learn how to use it as a skill. Focus on the areas for which you need English and learn the relevant business skills as well as the relevant language. Understand the cultural differences and focus on effective communication, rather than try to produce “perfect” English.

Now, there’s nothing to hold you back.