Business | Why better English skills would boost Chinese innovation

Why better English skills would boost Chinese innovation

As China strives to lead the world in innovation and business, evidence suggests that the role of English will be key

November 15, 2016 1:03 PM (UTC+8)
Photo: iStock / Getty
Photo: iStock / Getty

Lenovo Group was originally founded in a dusty, two-room Beijing guardhouse in 1984. Today, it’s the largest PC maker in the world.

One of the key reasons behind the firm’s global success – and its journey to become a multinational corporation – is language.

When the company acquired IBM’s famed Personal Computer Division a decade ago, it found itself at a crossroads that became the starting point for a radical transformation.

“The language was a big challenge. At the time, not all of our Chinese directors could speak fluent English. [But] the company made a decision to use English as the medium of communication in board meetings,” said Eric Mok, Lenovo’s Company Secretary and Assistant General Counsel in Hong Kong.

“We had a very strong determination to become a global company and to compete with global players. Using English as a medium of communication would help to attract well-qualified people to the board and would naturally make communication with the world better.”

The push has paid off. The company is today a Fortune 500 frontrunner in smart connected devices and has employees in more than 60 countries.

Lenovo offers just one example of how companies – and by extension countries – with high English proficiency tend to be more innovative.

Minh Tran, research director of Education First – the world’s largest private educator – believes innovation is about more than just smart, technically-savvy people coming up with game-changing ideas. It’s also about how we connect with each other and tap in to global information networks and skills.

Minh Tran, research director of Education First in Hong Kong.
Minh Tran, research director of Education First in Hong Kong. Photo: Johan Nylander

As 
China strives to lead the world in innovation through greater investment in science and technology, the role of English will become even more important, he added.

“We see a clear correlation between English proficiency and the number of researchers, technicians, high-tech exports and research and development expenditure in a country. This correlation is quite astonishing,” Minh Tran said in an interview in Hong Kong.

He compared the situation in China with that of Russia. It doesn’t have one single university in the global top 200, partly because most universities there don’t teach or research in English.

“It’s very difficult to do research in a vacuum”.

The company’s latest EF English Proficiency Index, which measures skills in non-native English-speaking countries, concluded that countries and companies that wish to attract foreign investment and trade, as well as stimulate entrepreneurial growth, have to recognize the importance of English language skills for creating a business-friendly environment.

“China has a large domestic market. But they are more ambitious than that. They want to break into the international market. To do that, they need English,” Minh Tran said.

The report gave examples of an increasing number of companies headquartered in non-English-speaking countries that have adopted English as their corporate language, including Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, French carmaker Renault, and South Korean conglomerate Samsung.

Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to promote economic integration across Asia, Africa and Europe, will have English as the connecting language in all of these places. The Beijing-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) also has English as its official language.

However, China still scores behind other Asian countries in the index. This year it ranked in the ‘low proficiency’ band – at 39th place –compared with Singapore at number 6, Malaysia at 12 and Hong Kong, which could only manage 30th place despite ostensibly retaining English as one of its two official languages.

How good is your English? Take the test here.

That said, progress is being made in mainland China. Last year, more than 520,000 Chinese students left the country to study abroad, and one fifth of scientific papers published in China involved an international collaborator. “As China positions itself as a global economic power, English proficiency will be key to its international development,” the report said.

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In an article in the Harvard Business Review written by Minh Tran, he explains the high correlations between English ability and key indicators of innovation. Key findings include:

  • Countries with high English proficiency spend a significantly larger share of their GDP on research and development than those with lower English skills. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Slovenia have some of the world’s strongest English proficiency — and some of the highest investment in R&D.
  • These high proficiency countries also tend to have more researchers and technicians per capita.
  • Additionally, there is a close correlation between a country’s English proficiency and its high-tech exports, such as computers and scientific instruments.

In summary, English skills open doors to people, ideas and information. Its use allows innovators to read primary scientific research, develop international collaborations, bring in talent from overseas, and participate in conferences. It expands the number of possible connections innovators can make with the ideas and people they need to generate original work.

Minh Tran offers the example of Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. The company is today one of the world’s most successful Internet entrepreneurs. But Ma has never written a line of code, and did not train as an engineer. Instead, Ma studied English in college, and worked as an English teacher.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Minh Tran concludes. “Ma’s bilingualism helped him work effectively across cultures and borders, and to pick up on global trends that gave him a critical edge in the 1990s as the Internet arrived in China.”

As Ma’s example makes clear, good innovators are also good communicators.

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