Massimiliano Ratti’s job was at stake when he started learning English at the age of 42. A native of Italy, he was informed by his employer that his position was being cut. Ratti was given an ultimatum- he could transfer to another job if he learned to speak English in six months or else he would be downsized.
Desperate to preserve his job, Ratti searched online for English courses. Comparing a half dozen options, he chose a program called Effortless English due to it’s focus on adult learners. For the next 6 months, he diligently listened to the lessons for two hours or more every day. In the morning, during his commutes, during lunch breaks, and in the evenings; Ratti used every available minute for listening to the lessons.
After three months, nothing much seemed to be happening; and he feared for his job. However, he noticed a sudden improvement after 4 months and his English speaking improved rapidly thereafter.
“In six months, I learned it and saved my job,” he said.
His success is extraordinary, but the English challenge he faced is increasingly common across the globe. Internationally, employees are increasingly expected to master spoken English, and they are expected to do so on their own.
There are over 1 billion people currently learning English world wide, according to figures available from the British Council. These impressive numbers are driven by adult speakers around the world who use English to communicate in the workplace.
While English is required for those living and working in English speaking countries such as the USA and UK, the tremendous demand for the language is driven by the use of English as a lingua franca between nations where English is not the primary language. In the global economy, English is the language of business.
“This is part of the new reality that employees are facing everywhere,” said A.J. Hoge, the author of Effortless English: Learn To Speak English Like A Native, “It’s been growing for a long time but now it’s reaching a critical point.”
Case in point is the Japanese multinational corporation Rakuten. Rakuten’s founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has created an English-only policy for the giant web commerce company. Mikitani said, “one of the things holding back Japanese firms from competing globally is a language barrier that prevents them from fully grasping overseas competition”.
With the new policy, all employees are required to use English for company communications, including meetings, presentations, emails, proposals, and other documents. The company expects employees to be proactive about learning English independently, on their own time.
While this is a developing trend for Japan, many international companies world wide are instituting English-only policies. In the business world, increasingly, there is simply no escape from English.
Of all the challenges faced by employees in a globalized economy, achieving English fluency is arguably one of the most difficult. It’s hard to find effective instruction, and there’s little consistency in the programs used to educate them. Despite years of study in school, most students graduate having never achieved fluency.
The education industry is divided over the best way to teach English, with the traditional grammar-translation approach favored by schools but also creating an emotional debate with those who favor a natural grammar-free approach.
Adult English learners are more likely to be under tremendous time pressure and in many cases require independent learning options that fit their busy schedules. The longer these students lack English fluency, the further they fall behind in the global economy. The earning difference for immigrants in English speaking countries is especially severe.
Employees who speak English “very well” earn, on average, 18,000 dollars a year more than those who speak “not well” or “not at all” according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although many are highly motivated to learn English, the current system of adult education in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is serving adult English language learners especially poorly – with high drop-out rates, low proficiency gains, and rigid barriers to rapid language learning.
These programs are not working effectively or efficiently – with only 40% of learners improving their fluency level after one year of study, and many fewer achieving full fluency, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In a 2012 report, the agency noted, “the design of the programs themselves is a factor. Largely administered and run by government agencies, adult English programs are generally not tailored to the needs of the specific learner.”
On a scale of one to 10, the quality of education of adult English learners world wide is “below three,” said Hoge.
“Traditional programs are simply failing adult English learners,” Hoge said. “International employees need new approaches that help them achieve true fluency in the language– that is, the ability to communicate clearly, naturally, and effortlessly in English”.
An adult English learner’s education usually started years before in the school system. Typically taught with the traditional grammar-translation method, many graduate with no practical communication ability. It’s not surprising that learners, therefore, find the challenge of mastering English as an adult intimidating. Frustrated by their failure in school, many look for alternative methods of learning.
How best to teach English learners is under debate.
While most schools continue to favor a grammar-translation approach, there has been recent momentum for a variety of natural approaches such as Effortless English, which has been a leader in online education since 2006. The company adopted a grammar-free program for all students, that emphasizes spoken fluency and intuitive techniques for teaching grammar and vocabulary.
The natural approach of teaching English is listening-based, focusing on exposure to natural speech instead of grammar practice. The method aims to replicate how students learn their native language. The approach is supported by research. In a study by Dr. Ashley Hastings, students learning with a natural approach improved 3 times faster than students using grammar-translation methods, over a 4 week period.
“The natural approach is spreading throughout the globe very, very fast, especially among independent learners” Hoge said.
One problem, however, is that it’s not always easy to find quality programs for adults. Pushed by their employers to learn independently, students struggle with the confusing array of choices available both online and off.
“I was fortunate” Ratti said. “Success depends on the quality of the program, and on having the discipline to follow it.”
“It’s just amazing,” he said, “that I did it in 6 months. Otherwise, I’d be unemployed today.”
The question is how well other adult learners can repeat his success.