Monday, October 24, 2011

“Only English speakers need apply”

If you ask an Asian student why they study Spanish or Japanese you will probably get a variety of responses. But if you ask why they study English there are two answers that always come at the top of their list: Because it is compulsory. And To get a job. But is it true that English will help you get a job? We have to consider two types of workers: those who go overseas in search of work, and those who stay home.

During a visit to Dubai the only worker I encountered who wasn’t a foreigner was the immigration officer who stamped my passport on arrival. Clearly English was indispensable to most of the hotel employees, such as the Sri Lankan staff at the taxi desk and fitness club and the Filipino receptionists. Even the Nepalese room-cleaners and Indian cooks could manage basic conversation. I was a little surprised to see that the only job ads I saw in Gulf News that specifically asked for English were for security guards, but I imagine that is because it is so obviously necessary for accountants and executives that the ads don’t even mention it.

However, I never got to talk to any of the thousands of construction workers and manual labourers in Dubai. The likelihood is that they don’t need much English in their jobs. They probably don’t need much Arabic either, being supervised by middlemen speaking their language and living with compatriots (around the city you come across posters offering “bed spaces for Nepali bachelors” or other specific nationalities). Willingness to work for low wages, rather than English, is surely what recruiters in Israel are looking for when they take on Thais to work on agricultural kibbutzim there.

Malaysia is trying to make basic English a requirement for all foreign workers but perhaps they should focus on Malay instead. I once sat on a plane next to a Burmese man coming to work as a builder in a small Malaysian city. He was studying an English-language booklet for immigrant workers published by the Malaysian government but I wonder how often he would need to use English. For a middle-sized developing country, Malaysia has a relatively large proportion of foreign workers. The waiters and hotel staff in the centre of the capital city are definitely employed mainly for their English skills. But the foreign workers employed in factories or on construction sites probably won’t need it much.

What about Asians looking for a job in their own country? Where English is widely used in business, such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, not knowing it well makes it almost impossible to get a well-paid job. Multinational companies in Thailand pay on average twice as well as local firms, so there is no shortage of people spending money on English courses they can ill afford in the hope of switching to one. However, English shouldn’t be a key factor for getting a job with a local firm in a country where business is mostly done in a local language. And yet it often is.

Beijing Time Out, a magazine aimed at foreign residents but read by many young Chinese, often carries advertisements for bilingual receptionists at small hair salons where few customers are likely to be foreigners. Nowadays most Korean students spend one or two semesters overseas, whatever their major, because they know companies may evaluate them according to their English proficiency – even if they won’t actually need to use the language at work.

Things used to be very different in Japan. Many students were actually reluctant to spend time overseas because they feared the delay would harm their chances of getting a job. Indeed the number of Japanese studying overseas has declined in recent years as the economic crisis there has worsened. This is partly because people do not have as much money as they used to. But it is also because competition for jobs in Japan has become so tough.

However, there are signs that things are changing. Many Japanese companies want employees with high TOEFL or TOEIC scores. In some cases English may be important for them to compete with foreign companies. In other cases, they simply want some way of narrowing down the thousands of students who apply for just one or two positions. Students themselves are also beginning to feel they may need English to work in Japan, because so many Japanese companies are hiring foreign staff nowadays (especially Chinese who can speak Mandarin, Japanese and English). Furthermore, students who have not been able to get a job may feel that they might as well go and study overseas rather than stay in Japan unemployed.

Whether it actually leads to better job prospects or not, my prediction is that the number of Japanese going overseas to study is set to increase again.