Is English Enough?

09.01.15 Publication:

There are several nations that call themselves “the lucky country”, most notably Australia. But in today’s world of global business, that title might also be applied to my own country, Great Britain. This is not because of any inherent characteristics of our land, climate or natural resources, as in the Australian case. It is simply because the global language of business has become English.

I was reminded of this good luck recently when I travelled to Okayama to give some lectures as a visiting professor at a new business faculty in a private university there, called Shujitsu University. I heard from many of the students and faculty about their efforts to encourage the learning and speaking of English, and an ambition, shared with many other business schools, to be able to conduct classes in English at some time in the future.

This is, of course, very good for us native English-speakers. It means that we are able now to feel less guilty about not speaking Japanese or other languages ourselves. But it raised a question in my mind: why is it really so important to learn English?

You might think this is a naïve and foolish question. If the global language of business is English, then it must be an advantage for any graduating student of business to be able to understand and communicate in that language. That is true. But the reason for my question is that a business school is not a language school: it is there to teach business, not languages. Languages can be learned separately, or subsequently, just like other skills.

What is important, I reflected, is not really the particular skill of being able to understand and communicate in English. This is just a tool. What is truly important, in any kind of high-level education, is the content of what you are understanding and the people with whom you are communicating.

Learning languages is a good thing to do, and happens also to be good mental training for other tasks. But it is important to avoid an emphasis on language from obscuring deeper needs and deeper purposes.

What I have in mind, especially in the case of business schools, is that the real issue is not language but globalization. In other words, what students need to understand is that competition is now borderless, and that new ideas, technologies or market disruptions can come from anywhere. No country can isolate itself, and nor can companies.

So what is vital is that in all the topics students are taught, they must be sure that they emerge from the course understanding what is the state-of-the-art best global thinking on those topics, as well as understanding how markets, strategies, regulations and companies themselves vary in major countries.

To achieve that goal, the English language may be useful, as it provides access to research and case studies from around the world. Yet although it may be necessary, it is not sufficient. What matters much more, I would argue, is access to people who have experience and knowledge of global business themselves. In other words, students and faculty from a variety of different countries.

For students who attend the world’s top business schools, such as Harvard, what they gain from their education is not simply the content of their courses. It is the intensive process of a Harvard Business School education, and the network of fellow students and faculty that they meet and interact with while they are there.

There is a lot of talk in Japan about increasing the learning of English, both in schools and universities. As an Englishman, and someone who has spent their life studying global issues, I do welcome this. It probably should have been begun 20 or 30 years ago. But actually, I would argue that alongside this language drive there should be another, more important effort.

This is the effort to make universities of all kinds, not just business schools, attract and admit many more foreign students and foreign faculty members. The reason why having tuition in English is useful is because it makes it easier to have foreign students and faculty.

During the 1990s, about 45,000-50,000 Japanese students every year went to study in America. Now, the number has halved. If fewer students want to, or feel able to, go out into the world, the answer must be to bring the world in to Japan. If there were more foreign students, of many nationalities, at Japanese universities, and more foreign faculty, then those educational institutions would be much better able to provide their Japanese students with a proper understanding of the world within which they will spend their working lives.