Why be fluent in English?
That’s the first thing that comes to our mind. Whether you like it or not, English is the de facto language of business in many countries and for cross-border communication, and interviews for most meaningful jobs are conducted in English.
And its importance is only going to increase in future (point # 3 further down in the post).
I don’t need to convince you on importance of speaking English for professional success. You would have observed this around you and probably experienced too.
Although professional success is the most important reason why should speak English, I’ll start the reasons with something very fundamental, a strong motivator for you.
1. English will be relevant for you even in the long-term
A reporter asked Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, “Jeff, what do you think is going to change most [in the e-commerce industry] in the next 10 years?”
Jeff Bezos replied, “That’s a good question. But a better question is: What’s not going to change in the next 10-20 years?”
He went on to add that from Amazon’s perspective customers would continue to demand lower prices and faster delivery even in the long term. (In other words, demand for lower prices and faster delivery won’t change even in the next 10-20 years.)
“When you have something that you know is true,” says Jeff Bezos, “even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”
If you think about it, it’s an extraordinarily valuable insight.
Let’s apply this insight to what we’re discussing.
Would you need strong communication skills (in English) in 10 years?
In 20 years?
I bet you would.
While the half-life of many technical skills is shrinking, soft skills continue to stay relevant for the long term. You would continue communicating till you’re in this world. Even if you retire from work, you can continue to shine socially through your superior communication skills.
Contrast this with subjects such as math, science, history, and engineering you study in school or college. We devote so much time to them, but most of us don’t use them to any significant level once we walk away with our degrees.
Remember, English is a skill, not a subject.
Going by what Jeff Bezos said – and I strongly agree with it – it makes every ounce of sense to make your communication skills top notch if they’re going to matter in a profound way for so, so long.
Let’s come to professional reasons for improving your communication skills in English.
2. Strong communication skill is a key ingredient for professional success
While it is hard to measure role of proficiency in subjects such as math, physics, history, and economics on employability, proficiency in English language skills has strong impact on employability. Data is widely available and unequivocal in this regard.
Let’s see what studies and experts say in this regard.
2.1 Industry veteran gives two key messages
Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys (USD 10 Billion + revenue), in his keynote at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras convocation ceremony left two key messages with the graduating students: don’t stop learning and develop soft skills.
His two messages, in fact, are supported by market-driven statistics. Have a look at the ten most popular courses on Coursera in 2017:
The two highlighted courses above can be taken as proxies for his two key messages… and they certainly are in demand. (Update: the two courses are at second and sixth position, respectively, in 2018 top-ten list.)
On soft skills specifically, he said:
…machines are becoming smarter with new technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep learning and will take away repetitive jobs that they can do well. However, machines will never take away jobs that involve people to do well….Therefore, soft skills and doing things with empathy, able to collaborate and work as a team cannot be automated. Students should develop these capabilities to get things done in a different way that have a high degree of human interaction.
He surely knows what matters in the real world, what the fundamentals are. He was speaking at IIT, but, instead of technical stuff, he laid emphasis on two things, one of which is soft skills. And strong communication skill is a fundamental pillar of soft skills.
2.2 Despite best degree, people may struggle without strong communication skills
Soum Paul in his book The Topper Prepares: The True Stories of Those Who Cracked the JEE mentions his interview with Mr. Maram Venkat Ramreddy, one of the Deans at The Narayana IIT Academy, a popular coaching institution for IIT aspirants in Southern India. Mr. Ramreddy has seen many of his students who joined IIT struggle because of inadequate communication skills. To quote him from the book:
The first rank is not important. Whether you gain 1st rank or 50th rank, or 500th rank, or below 1000, it doesn’t make any difference as far as I can see. So I constantly insist that the students improve their communication skills. A student might end up with 97 percent marks in their subjects, but without communication skills, he would not get the best jobs in the industry. A student with better communication skills will get the edge even with lower marks.
People even with the best degrees may struggle if they don’t possess strong communication skills. And the opposite too happens all the time. People with average degrees make great careers on top of strong work ethic and communication skills. Look over your shoulders, and you’ll see plenty of examples from both the categories. Many get into the mad race of enrolling into the best colleges at the expense of everything else. By all means, do get into the mad race, but don’t ignore skills that may derail your progress in future.
Let’s look at few studies in this regard.
2.3 Study by Aspiring Minds
Based on a sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India, National Spoken English Skills Report by Aspiring Minds has some startling findings:While the problem is widespread, it’s accentuated in tier-2 and tier-3 cities.
Imagine the leverage a college graduate will have if she/ he can be in that 3 percent or 25 percent (refer to the image above) who have the spoken English to land those jobs. Otherwise, tens of thousands of dollars spent on those degrees will yield disproportionately low return, as is happening with vast majority.
2.4 Study from Stanford GSB
Thomas Harrell, former professor of applied psychology at Stanford University Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB), studied the traits of most successful Stanford GSB alumni. He studied a group of MBAs a decade after graduation and found that Grade Point Average (GPA) had no bearing on their success. One trait that was common among the most accomplished alumni was ‘verbal fluency’, a synonym for ability to confidently make conversation with anyone in any situation.
Stanford GSB, along with HBS and Wharton, is consistently ranked as top-3 MBA programs in the world. And even there the biggest influence on the success of alumni is not some finance or marketing course, but ‘verbal fluency’, which in reality isn’t influenced for most graduates by the MBA curriculum. Verbal fluency is predominantly a result of own effort.
2.5 Study from Rotman School of Management
Rotman School of Management, Canada’s top-ranked MBA program, studied placement outcomes of more than 1,000 of its MBA graduates in a five-year period from 2008 to 2013. They found that the AWA score (it reflects your ability to think critically and communicate ideas) and performance in admission interviews (interview conducted during the admission process) are highly predictive of a candidate’s ability to land a job and to gain a solid starting salary.
Highly predictive, and not just predictive!
Majors during MBA program, GMAT score, and past academic and industry background had no significant impact on employability.
“The most shocking surprise for us was how close to irrelevant [to post-MBA employability] the GMAT was,” says Kevin Frey, managing director for the full-time MBA program at Rotman.
Without strong communication skills, you’ll struggle to have desired career outcomes even from the best MBA programs in the world.
Let’s see few real-world manifestation of all this.
If you observe around, you’ll find plenty of persons struggling in one way or the other because of lack of effective English, both spoken and written.
It also reflects directly in the difference in the earning power of people who speak English fluently and those who do not by as much as 100 percent. The same person may end up as a packer/ loader or in the front office on the basis of just one key difference – fluency in English. I recently met a guy working as janitor who failed to get a clerical job at a law firm because his English wasn’t up to the mark. That job would have more than doubled his income.
You would have come across sales executives (those who understand your requirements and show you products) in retail stores many times. They get recruited at the entry level after finishing their undergrad. If they’re good communicators in English though, they can be taken in immediately after K-12 at the same salary (they can pursue undergrad while working).
Do you need more evidence, more convincing?
Even if you work in a technical role, you need strong English communication skills
Technical persons don’t work in isolation. They’ve to work with others. They’ve to convince people, agree with them, disagree with them to accomplish their tasks. And in an ever- globalizing world, you often need to communicate with others (vendors, customers, partners, and colleagues) located in a different country, and English is invariably the default language for such communication.
Rishad Premji, Chief Strategy Officer at Wipro, one of the leading Information Technology (IT) companies in India, emphasizes the importance of behavioral skills (or soft skills) for tech people:
How do you combine technical skills with behavioral skills? We focus a lot on that — the ability to communicate, work in teams and not be individual contributors. Those things are becoming more important.
To give an overview of the entire industry – and not just Wipro – in India, I quote from 2016 National Employment Report for Engineers by Aspiring Minds (sample size of more than 150,000 engineering students from 650+ engineering colleges across multiple Indian states):
IT Services companies today realize that within two years of the job, the candidate will have to communicate with international customers. This makes English a much more important parameter right at the time of entry-level hiring. As these trends catch up across industry, the employability for IT Services sector, which is the largest employer in engineering will diminish further. To remain competitive in the job market, colleges and students both need to have a sharp focus on programming and English (both written and spoken).
And your use of English will grow as you get promoted to senior positions, where sales and coordination with cross-functional teams becomes a routine. Jon Evans, Chief Technology Officer at HappyFunCorp, emphasizes how at senior levels communication skills start getting even more important:
But the most striking thing about growing more senior in the tech industry is how, more and more, non-technical skills — dare I say it, liberal-arts skills — begin to dictate your success and/or failure. Food for thought.
Technical skills alone aren’t sufficient for landing good jobs – and rising – in the tech industry.
To give an analogy, your technical skills are like a warhead, which is of little use without a launch vehicle (soft skills) – a missile or an aircraft. You need warhead as well as the launch vehicle.
At senior positions, your communication skills play even more important role
As you climb the corporate ladder, your communication load increases. At senior positions, you’ve to typically communicate not just with cross-functional teams within your organization, but also with external stakeholders such as vendors, customers, regulators, and governments.
At senior positions, more often than not, you’re also expected to bring in business (or revenue) to your organization, which requires deft communication – both verbal and written – with potential clients to build relationships and convince them on doing business with your organization. This tweet from Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, sums this up well:
So even if you snag an entry-level job somehow, you’ll hit a ceiling down the road if your communication skills aren’t top notch.
Many, however, mistakenly believe that after they join an organization at the entry level, their communication skills will improve automatically over the years. That’s true to some extent. You may improve somewhat in the natural course, but may not reach the desired extent. Just observe around to see how many even at senior levels have average communication skills. You’ll find good variance even at that level.
Why is this so?
Let me explain through an example.
Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, gives example of how his mother’s typing speed didn’t change despite several years of practice:
Think of how most of us go about our lives. My mother was a secretary for many years and, before embarking on her career, went on a course to learn how to type. After a few months of training she reached seventy words a minute, but then hit a plateau that lasted for the rest of her career. The reason is simple: this was the level required to gain employment, and once she had started work, it hardly seemed important to get any better. When she typed, she had her mind on other things.
She worked several hours every day for several years and yet she remained at more or less the same level. (Sounds familiar? This is so, so rampant.)
Because she worked without seeking improvements.
You’ve to make conscious effort to iron out the deficient parts of your communication skills. They won’t disappear magically.
3. Importance of English will only go up in future
In the very first reason for why learning English is important, I mentioned that if an important skill is going to be valuable for decades, then there is a strong reason to master it. And what if that importance is likely to increase?
Stronger reason to… right?
Few trends that point to this prognosis:
3.1 Increasing globalization
The growing, and already well-entrenched, globalization will continue to increase the role of cross-border communication.
Most companies of significance these days have one or more of their internal teams, suppliers, customers, or partners in a different country. Go-Jek, the Uber of Indonesia, for example, has its corporate office in Jakarta, but, guess what, their engineering team is based in Bangalore. Similarly, many large U.S. headquartered tech companies have large development teams in India. And communication among multiple locations of the same organization is invariably in English.
Some companies are adopting English as their official language across their offices, Audi, Airbus, Renault, and Samsung being case in point. Rakuten, the largest e-commerce site in Japan, adopted English as the company’s official language in 2012 even though their market was Japanese speaking. Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani credits the English-speaking culture for hiring some of the top engineering and other talent who otherwise wouldn’t have joined a non-English speaking company. He also credits the new culture for the company’s drive to expand internationally. To quote him:
The only way to compete in this interconnected Internet age is to speak the language of the market – and that language is English.
3.2 Growing service sector in emerging economies
As emerging economies mature, service sector will constitute bigger and bigger share of their GDPs. This sector will generate not only more jobs but also most remunerative jobs. However, service sector fundamentally requires more communication than, say, manufacturing or mining sector, and hence strong communication skills will provide more and better opportunities in future in emerging economies.
3.3 Increasing tech automation
Jobs are increasingly getting automated. Walmart recently rolled out technologies ranging from in-store Pickup Towers to floor-scrubbing robots that will replace people in its stores. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that by 2030, in about 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of activities will be automated. Automation, though, isn’t replacing just entry-level and back office staff. It’s replacing even the high-paying jobs such as that of equity research which were once swamped by students from top colleges.
Whatever the extent of automation in future, jobs that require thinking, creativity, and human interaction will continue to be relevant, facets where communication skills play an important role. Lawyers will continue to be relevant. Consultants will continue to be relevant. But without strong communication skills, many of these doors will be shut on you. (Remember, the quote from Nandan Nilekani in reason # 2?) Strong soft skills are a cushion against losing job to automation.
3.4 Rising freelance economy
Freelancing, especially among millennials, is growing fast. This has led to springing up of online platforms such as Upwork, freelancer, and 99designs, where service providers get projects. Clients on such platforms come from all over the world, and therefore – at least on any significant platform – the default language for communication on such platforms is English. By the way, these platforms aren’t used just by freelancers. They’re extensively used by small businesses as well to get projects.
3.5 Declining barriers to reach more and more people
People who possess strong communication skills – verbal and written, both – especially in English potentially have an edge over others because it has never been so easy to reach out to billions of people, a trend that will only get starker in future.
4. English language skills can open more career options
If you’ve strong communication skills in English, many more options open for you when you graduate from college. And as a cushion for future, you also have more options to start afresh in a different career if your industry slows down or you get laid off.
We see these happening all the time around us, but this rarely registers with us. Because it’s important, let me explain this through an example.
If you plan to take up English television journalism, a big skill-checkbox is ticked if you speak fluent English. And if you don’t, then the doors are more or less shut for you. It’ll take you few years to reach the requisite level, but unfortunately you can’t wait that long and will have to take up some other option. (Acquiring fluent language skills is not like preparing for a competitive exam. Unlike exam prep, it takes time to reach a high level of proficiency.) However, a person who speaks fluent English starts on a high base for such jobs.
So is the case with legal profession. To give example from India, you can thrive in the legal profession with your native language too by contesting cases in lower judiciary, but you’ll soon hit a glass ceiling as the medium of communication in higher judiciary is English. Corporate law, a lucrative segment in the legal profession, is more or less in English. If you’re proficient in English, lot of your base is already covered.
Another aspect of this flexibility may come into play for some when they’ve to change – voluntarily or involuntarily – their industry in future. Globally, major shifts have happened in the financial service industry in the last decade, forcing many to look for opportunities in completely new industries. In India, telecom industry has witnessed tectonic shifts in the last one year, again resulting in loss of jobs. So has been the case in information technology industry. And such disruptions will only accelerate in future.
When you enter a new industry, many of your past technical skills may be of limited use. However, your soft skills will still be useful. Second, your soft skills will also enable you to make shifts that you otherwise won’t be able to. (Remember, there are fewer options for experienced professionals than for recent graduates.) I know few persons who could come out of dire straits and successfully transition into another career mainly because of their communication and networking skills. In short, strong English language skills will act as a soft cushion, some insurance for future shocks.
5. English can raise your standing and broaden your social network
“The doctor’s entire manner changed. She sat us down, offered me water, and listened to my symptoms for 20 minutes,” says Nikki.
This was in sharp contrast to her earlier experiences when she didn’t speak in English.
Here is another example where students want to learn the language so that they’re not left out socially.
Although it shouldn’t happen, this incident is symptomatic of how people associate English with influence and authority.
Have you noticed your colleagues at work or friends in school and college who were fluent speakers? Fluent speakers typically have broader and better social network (I’m not talking of social media).
Have you noticed people who appear as guests on television news and other intellectual discussions? If you’re famous, you’re likely to be there. But a good number of persons who express their views there are those who are interesting, who have opinions, and, importantly, who can speak well.
To quote Suhel Seth, CEO of the Counsel Age India, a marketing guru, a well-known columnist, and a regular face on television news, from his book Get to the Top: The Ten Rules for Social Success:
After all, when was the last time you wanted to sit down for dinner with the freshly minted paan masala owner? [He goes on to name few more.] It’s not the absence of wealth that makes them unappealing but the fact that they don’t make much of an impression in most circles. You make an impression when you’ve created a brand for yourself and the best way to create this brand is with words.
Many mistakenly believe that rich automatically get strong social acceptance and people make a beeline to interact with them. People do (make a beeline), but mainly to benefit themselves. Otherwise, if you’re uninteresting, if you don’t have ‘words’, they’ll interact with you once or twice and then move on.
Wealth alone doesn’t attract admirers.
6. English is the language of higher and technical education
The medium of instruction in most higher education and technical programs is English. Quality text books, other study material, and even web-material are available mostly in English, severely limiting the choices of those who aren’t conversant in the language.
Students not well-versed in English may struggle to follow lectures. (Here is a narration from a student of a premier Delhi University college.) They rarely dare to ask questions in the class. And they dread being called out by the professor to explain something.
To give an extreme example, few students are expelled every year from IITs because of poor academic standing, the main reason for which has been difficulty in understanding instructions (which are in English) in the class.
7. English is a language for international mobility
Last but not the least, if you aspire to travel around the world or pursue international study or attend some other international program, you’ll likely be handicapped without command of English language.