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- Category: Business
Chun Hin is a senior manager at a Hong Kong investment bank. Every morning, he listens to Bloomberg radio on his way to work and used to read each issue of the Economist from cover to cover in an effort to continuously improve his English. As a Hong Kong native who grew up speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, Chun Hin has worked hard to become fluent in English.
Chun Hin’s story will resonate with many professionals. Pressure to speak English in the workplace continues to grow as more and more companies invest in globalizing their teams. However, mastering a new language requires time and resources that many people — especially adults who are no longer in school — struggle to find. Our company EF Education First annually releases the world’s largest study of English proficiency in various countries and industries. For the past eight years, education ministries, multinational companies, and universities have used the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) to help them understand how their approaches to teaching English — and business English, in particular — stack up against competitors.
This research has helped us map global trends in English learning. Over the years, we have found, again and again, that a country’s English proficiency correlates closely with metrics of innovation and overall economic well-being. While some global companies excel in cultivating English-speaking workforces, others flounder.
We distilled lessons learned from our work and from the literature on second language acquisition into a few tips that highlight how people can learn English more effectively. If you’re a professional looking to improve your business English, consider incorporating these into your learning plan:
Set specific goals. Learning is best done by setting specific goals that are challenging yet achievable. Don’t leave the timeline open-ended, either; set clear deadlines for yourself. A goal like “I want to be able to give a presentation in English,” is too vague. Instead, say, “I want to be able to comfortably deliver a ten-minute presentation in English about sales goals, without using a PowerPoint, by the end of August.”
Create habits. Find ways to practice English every day or every week. Regular effort builds momentum and creates habits of learning. For instance, try to read one industry article a day, deliver a presentation in English once a week, or write your weekly team updates in English.
Believe in yourself. Learners who believe in their own self-efficacy are more motivated and more willing to take on challenging tasks. Reflect on whether you truly believe you can accomplish your set goals. If not, revise your goals and make them smaller or more manageable until you trust that you can achieve them.
Enjoy the learning experience. People with more positive attitudes toward learning English make more of an effort and learn more than people with negative attitudes. If you find yourself dreading English practice time, rethink your approach. Be creative: read the English version of your favorite book, for example, or enroll in an English cooking class.
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Use authentic English materials. Textbooks and practice tests have their time and place. But authentic materials, such as TV shows, podcasts, and TED talks, expose you to English in its native habitat. They better prepare you for real-life situations, and they’re often more enjoyable than strictly educational materials. Seek out good writing, watch great speakers, and try to imitate the format, structure, and language of those whose work you admire. Exposure to authentic materials not only helps with language proficiency, but it can also enhance your knowledge of a particular field.
Join a positive learning community. While there are plenty of good language learning apps on the market, our own research at EF shows that learners still benefit from having an effective teacher and a supportive learning community. Teachers help students set achievable goals and overcome barriers that inevitably arise along the way. Supportive classmates provide accountability and the friendly push that students need to keep up with their study plans. Our students who join a social media group with their teachers and classmates study two to three times more than those who do not.
Ask for feedback. The research is clear: prompt and frequent feedback has a huge effect on learning. Seek regular feedback from teachers and mentors while you practice an important speech or work on a critical business proposal. Find people who like to nit-pick about language and grammar. They will help you perfect your English.
In today’s digital age, it is becoming easier to find great resources for improving your business English. However, our research shows that busy professionals learn best when they have some kind of structured course with a flexible lesson schedule.
Of course, none of the above tips will make learning English easy. Even with the best approach, taking on a foreign language is a long-term and challenging commitment. But our research is encouraging: with patience, realistic goals, and a good community of learners, it really is possible for busy adults to master the world’s lingua franca.