A new study that lists the best and worst countries around the world for their business English capabilities has not just raised eyebrows in the Nearshore sector, it has also raised some serious hackles. The Business English Index (BEI), developed by English language trainers Global English, assigns countries a score out of ten, where one to three ranks as beginner, four to six as basic, seven to eight as intermediate and nine to ten advanced.
According to Global English, the study offers “a complete picture of the trends, achievements and challenges in business communication and the importance of Business English in the workplace.”
The results do not make a pretty reading for Latin America. Seven out of the ten worst countries are from the region, including the entire bottom three – with Honduras (2.92) claiming last place followed by Colombia (3.05), and Mexico (3.14).
“I was trying to find out what was the basis for this, what were their criteria, how did they do it, what was the purpose what are they trying to show here”
However, when the results were reprinted in an article on CIO’s online magazine, catching the eye of the outsourcing community, many found them difficult to believe. “There is an extremely different real world, on-the-ground experience compared to what the article is saying,” said Peter Ryan from business analysts Ovum. “I have visited at least five of the ten worst countries and I can tell you, from my experience, English has been very strong in each one.”
The reasons for the discrepancy lie with the study’s methodology, say critics. The results were based not on the usual array of performance indicators but instead on the placement tests of 137,000 Global English students.
“We believe that it was a little bit skewed when you compare what the companies are saying, what the KPIs [key performance indicators] are saying, what the government is doing, verses a study that is based on the selling of tests,” said Yolanda Martinez, from Proesa, the trade promotion body of El Salvador, which ranked the sixth worst country in the list with a score of 3.24.
Barometer of English Proficiency
Aside from the claims that placement tests of students seeking to improve their English can act as an accurate barometer for a nation’s overall business English capabilities, it is the thinly disguised commercial aspect of the report that has attracted the most ire.
“I was trying to find out what was the basis for this, what were their criteria, how did they do it, what was the purpose what are they trying to show here,” said Maggi Williams, who has overseen the development of KM2’s bilingual operations in Honduras and said the country’s ‘worst’ ranking did not reflect her experience. “Once I read into it and saw who was doing it, my take was that there were underpinnings of ‘if you hire me, we’ll fix your English’.”
Global English’s soft sell approach gets harder when the report discusses why countries need to improve their English skills. “We are potentially reaching a point of global divergence: one set of businesses, countries and industries that have embraced the need for Business English proficiency as requisite to function efficiently and compete in the global economy, and another set of businesses, countries and industries destined to be left behind and lag for decades to come”, the report states.
By the report’s logic, Madagascar (14th place) – where 70% of the population lives in poverty and 59% in extreme poverty – is tearing ahead of Germany (29th) and China (34th) in the globalized economy. Is this crossing the line of presenting a sales pitch as research? “Absolutely,” says Williams.
The concern for those in the Nearshore sector is that while the research may help drum up business for Global English, it could well have the opposite effect for outsourcing vendors and countries looking to develop their outsourced services sector.
English and Investors
“Investors value rankings that give them perspective and points of comparison so rankings can affect what investors think about a country,” said Martinez. “If the investors understand the methodology [of this report] it won’t affect them, if they don’t understand the methodology and they just go with the title of the article and then it could.”
For Williams, while as an investor she would not have bought into the findings without further validation, as a service provider the report has her worried. “My concern is that it is more likely to have influence on my potential clients because it did get some fairly wide press,” she said.
That press coverage has also come in for some heavy criticism. While some questioned the study, others, particularly CIO, have attracted the irritation of the outsourcing community for their uncritical reproduction of the results. “The problem is if you look at this article, the way it was written, this is a statement of fact,” said Ryan. “But there is a commercial element to it and from my perspective what this article and the study has done is unduly put pressure on certain countries where the emphasis on English language instruction has been concerted and successful.”
Yet while the report and its potential effects may have gone unchallenged in sectors of the media, it certainly has not in the Nearshore sector. “Since this has been published and transited around to people in the economic development community in different countries as well as to the outsourcing community, I can say there has been a significant level of hostility towards it in regards to the impact it might have on economies that are burgeoning based on their capacity to do English language BPO work,” said Ryan.
Global English, though, does not seem keen to answer to that hostility, and did not respond to Nearshore Americas’ request for an interview.
(Editor’s Note: Longtime followers of Nearshore Americas will remember the above mentioned issue harkens back to an episode four years ago when Bogota was portrayed as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Place to Outsource.” After persistent efforts to reach the authors of the report – from the notorious ‘Black Book of Outsourcing’, we were finally provided with a sort of Mea Culpa from the president of Datamonitor, at the time, who admitted that the Black Book process showed that ‘work had to be done’. The Datamonitor response followed our coverage of Sitel receiving recognition from the Black Book. In recent years, Ovum, which had taken over the Black Book brand, appears to have shut down the complete franchise.)