English not only opens up career opportunities beyond national borders; it is a key requirement for many jobs. It’s also no longer a case of just learning English for employability, but mastering English for business – and that means an on-going commitment to learn.
My experience is consistent with this trend. If I had to put a figure on the value that being fluent in English has had on my career, it’s my entire life’s earnings. Learning English has offered me educational options beyond the borders of my own country and enabled me to develop the skills to work for global companies that operate across national boundaries. I have been privileged to work in different countries in roles that have spanned functions, geographies and markets – and my ability to learn and evolve my English skills has been an underlying factor throughout.
How I improved my English
I grew up in Greece, where – as is common in many European countries with languages that aren’t widely spoken – learning a second European language is part of the education system. As a result my first encounter with English was through the Franklin approach, which focuses on grammar and writing rather than all the four skills. This meant I could read and write very well, yet when I first arrived in the UK I couldn’t hold a simple conversation in the pub!
It’s a common problem with traditional educational approaches that don’t cover all the learning skills – something still evident in many countries globally. In Japan, for example, after years of focusing on reading and writing there’s now a strong desire to teach students to understand spoken English and speak fluently.
I was fortunate to get a chance to complete my postgraduate studies in the UK. This was a challenge, as I had to raise my English up to a much higher standard. I also needed to improve a different kind of English if I wanted to enjoy a social life: that was a pretty powerful motivator! I surrounded myself with people who only spoke English because, as John de Jong tells us, language acquisition accrues through exposure to the spoken language and the necessity to use that language to understand what other people are saying and to make yourself understood.
Precision learning in the workplace
This approach, together with formal learning, eventually paid off for me but once I entered the workplace I found that there were many new aspects of English to learn.
One of the main barriers to learning at different levels and applications of English (for university, for friendships, for work) is knowing precisely where you are at any stage of your learning journey, and knowing where you need to go next (and how best to get there). As I found, this is compounded when you enter the workplace where you also have new skills to learn in a second language – from IT to soft skills such as negotiation. If I had been given a precise learning path to help me in my first job, or get my second job and so on – then my end goals could have been reached more quickly and easily. Yes, I was highly motivated to learn and what worked for me does not necessarily work for others, not least because most professionals who learn English for work – at work – are time poor. And with greater technology advances we all now expect much faster results.
Crucially, this all points to the most difficult success factors in English teaching and learning to solve – whatever the learning methods, products: progress and motivation.
Until recently, progress in language learning has been measured in broad levels. Common scales, and the curriculum tied to them, are not always best designed to reflect the four skills or different applications such as academic versus business.
These measures are increasingly being exposed as incomplete and no longer being fit for purpose. It is that need that has led to the extensive global research and development into the Global Scale of English (GSE) – a precise, standardised measure of proficiency from 10 to 90 across the four skills. The GSE extends the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), its steps are much more granular and it provides a powerful, focused motivator for further learning throughout your career. It includes sets of learning objectives as ‘can do’ statements at each level and because these are tailored to the learning environment – say, for work – learning goals and measures of progress are more relevant and accurate. That, in turn, leads to greater engagement and increased motivation.
The future of language learning in the workplace
The key trends of personalisation and adaptive learning are driving the future of English language learning. Online methods and the use of big data analytics and tools continues to expand and increase in sophistication, enabling English language learning to become more specific to individual needs, learning styles and capabilities while offering improved measurement of impact and results. This is vital because language learners learn at different rates and in different ways.
Technology is also helping us support another trend: increasing demand by learners for specific interventions and focus on micro-skills and competencies. As our ability to understand individual needs improves we will become better equipped to provide solutions that concentrate on what’s important for English learners and their careers, such as interviewing in English, running an effective meeting or being able to better express thoughts in writing.
There is a big opportunity for English language learning to embrace those trends, which is why we’re so excited with what we’re doing with the GSE: it gives us the necessary framework to offer flexibility of learning and increased levels of personalisation to English language learners, while ensuring that our products and solutions complement each other. Crucially, it also allows us to measure and show our learners their actual progress.
Finally, it’s important to remember that we never stop learning. Even after living in the UK for 20 years, I still find new words and expressions that open up new possibilities – both in and out of the workplace.
This is just the beginning of a new agenda for Business English. Join the debate by tweeting #englishforwork.