David Cameron last week highlighted the disadvantage immigrants in Britain suffer when they cannot speak English.
He pointed to the 190,000 Muslim women who could not speak the language. Although the government denied it planned to deport non-English speakers, it said their language skills would be “taken into account” when they requested visa extensions.
The UK prime minister linked failure to learn English with the “slide towards radicalisation and extremism”. He is wrong about that. The people who join extremist groups usually speak perfect English. But he is right about the economic damage that lack of fluent English brings.
It is not just a British problem. Worldwide, opportunities increasingly go to those who speak English. Whether they want to work as diplomats or hotel porters, speaking the language puts them ahead of those who do not.
When companies make English their language they reorder their hierarchy. Staff who speak good English suddenly acquire a higher status.
Chance or threat?
A study last month in the Management International Review, looking at Air France’s 2004 takeover of KLM, the Dutch airline, said the decision to make English the merged company’s language thrilled some employees and scared others.
Those who did not speak English well disliked the merger. They thought their careers had taken a dive. Those who spoke better English were not only more cheerful about their prospects, they were also more enthusiastic about the merged company. Another group of researchers found the same pattern when interviewing managers and staff at eight companies that either had head offices in Japan and subsidiaries in Germany or the other way round.
In almost every case, the common language adopted was English. This study, published in the Journal of World Business in 2011, said: “Nearly every single interviewee indicated that English language capabilities were very important for promotion within the company, and many indicated that it played a role in recruitment as well.”
The article cited a study of the imposition of English as the corporate language in a German company with a Japanese subsidiary. The result was “conflict between junior and senior Japanese managers, because the former had better English language skills than the latter. This effectively gave the junior managers better access to decision-making and more power than their seniors.”
‘Poor English’ at ABB
These advantages are relative. Not many non-native speakers are entirely comfortable in English. Goran Lindahl, former chief executive of ABB, once described the Swiss-Swedish group’s language as “poor English”.
Mr Lindahl’s point, as the MIT Sloan Management Review said, was that “no one should be embarrassed to express an idea because of a lack of perfection in English”, but, of course, people are embarrassed, or less able to express themselves, if their English is limited.
It is no surprise that ambitious parents the world over regard learning English as a priority for their children. The gap between those who are competent in English and those who are not is far more significant than the “digital divide” that Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, wrote about in the Financial Times last week.
Mr Nadella was worried that some people had access to cloud computing, which gave them information about “health, education and development” and some did not. I am not sure this is a big problem. We all managed without cloud computing until recently and once you have access to digital technology it does not take long to work out how to use it.
Learning a language, on the other hand, takes most of a lifetime, and the sooner you start the better. It is desperately difficult for adults to learn a new language to a competent level.
Freed, as they see it, from the need to learn anyone else’s language, few native English speakers understand this. Judging by Mr Cameron’s short, and apologetic, attempt at French in an address to the Canadian parliament in 2011, he has advanced no further in learning other people’s languages than those non-English speaking immigrants have in learning his, in spite of his far greater educational advantages.
English is not innately superior to any other tongue. But it is the language of business, science and tourism. Mr Cameron is right that learning it is the road to opportunity, in the UK or anywhere else.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016