Business Week 13/8/2001

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AUGUST 13, 2001


The Great English Divide

In Europe, speaking the lingua franca separates the haves from the have-nots

Antonio Sanz might as well have won the lottery. In 1965, when the small, curly-haired Spaniard was 10, an American professor asked his parents if she might take the boy to the U.S. and enroll him in public school. They agreed. America seemed to offer a brighter future than the dairy farms where his father worked in the foothills north of Madrid. Sanz left, but came back to Spain every summer with stories from Philadelphia and boxes of New World artifacts: Super Balls, baseball cards, and Bob Dylan records.

His real prize, though, was English. Sanz learned fast, and by senior year he outscored most of his honors English classmates in the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In those days, back in his hometown of Colmenar Viejo, English seemed so exotic that kids would stop him on the street and ask him to say a few sentences. By the time he graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and moved back to Spain, American companies there were nearly as excited. He landed in Procter & Gamble Co.

Sanz, now 46 and a father of three, employs his Philadelphia English as an executive at Vodafone PLC in Madrid. But something funny has happened to his second language. These days, English is no longer special, or odd, or even foreign. In Paris, Düsseldorf, Madrid, and even in the streets of Colmenar Viejo, English has put down roots. “What else can we all speak?” Sanz asks.

BASIC TOOL. No surprise there. English is firmly entrenched nearly everywhere as the international language of business, finance, and technology. But in Europe, it's spreading far beyond the elites. Indeed, English is becoming the binding agent of a continent, linking Finns to French and Portuguese as they move toward political and economic unification. A common language is crucial, says Tito Boeri, a business professor at Bocconi University in Milan, “to take advantage of Europe's integrated labor market.”

English, in short, is Europe's language. And while some adults are slow to embrace this, it's clear as day for European children. “If I want to speak to a French person, I have to speak in English,” says Ivo Rowekamp, an 11-year-old in Heidelberg, Germany.

The implications for business are enormous. It's no longer just top execs who need to speak English. Everyone in the corporate food chain is feeling the pressure to learn a common tongue as companies globalize and democratize. These days in formerly national companies such as Renault and BMW, managers, engineers, even leading blue-collar workers are constantly calling and e-mailing colleagues and customers in Europe, the U.S., and Japan. The language usually is English, an industrial tool now as basic as the screwdriver.

But there's one fly in the ointment. While English is fast becoming a prereq for landing a good job in Europe, only 41% of the people on the Continent speak it–and only 29% speak it well enough to carry on a conversation, according to a European Commission report. The result is an English gap, one that divides Europe's haves from its have-nots. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Europeans brought peasants into the workforce by teaching them to read and write the national language. These days, the equivalent challenge is to master Europe's international language. Those that fail–countries, companies, and individuals alike–risk falling far behind.

How much is English worth? In jobs from offices to the factory floor, recruiters say that workers who speak English often command salaries 25% to 35% above those who don't. More important, they can aspire to a host of higher-level jobs that are off-limits to monolinguists. “English is an imperative,” says Didier Vuchot, chairman of recruiter Korn/Ferry International in Europe.

A generation ago, this wasn't the case. Most European companies did the bulk of their business at home. They maintained only a small phalanx of English-speaking “international experts” to deal with bankers in London and machine shops in Chicago. Ambitious anglophones such as Antonio Sanz often landed at American multinationals. “I was with a bunch of aristocrats at Procter,” Sanz recalls. “In Spain, they were the ones who spoke English.”

That was when Europe boasted only a handful of multinational corporations. Now there are hundreds. When European governments freed up their economies during the 1980s and '90s, a host of newly private companies burst onto the scene. As they pushed for growth, giants such as Deutsche Telekom and France's Alcatel spread across borders in a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions. Suppliers followed them into foreign markets. In most of these companies, managers who didn't know English soon found themselves confined to sleepy domestic operations. Their English-chattering colleagues, by contrast, flew the globe and advanced.

The need for a lingua franca is most pressing for global technology players. “We need a common language,” says Alcatel CEO Serge Tchuruk. “There aren't many choices.” So in the early '90s, Alcatel and Finland's Nokia embraced English as the corporate language. In Europe, where the Germans and French have long battled for supremacy, English also makes political sense: It's the closest thing to linguistic neutral territory. When France's Rhone Poulenc and Germany's Hoechst joined forces to found Aventis two years ago, they set up headquarters in the border city of Strasbourg. And they further defused cultural tensions by adapting English as the company language.

The other European languages are hardly dying, of course, and British and American managers working in Europe would do well to pick up bilingual skills. But new forces, including the Internet, are pushing Europe toward a common language. Take KPNQwest, the pan-European phone company based in the Netherlands. There, all e-mail must be written in English, even communiqués between German engineers. Why? CEO John A. McMaster sees e-mail as strings of communication that often spread through the corporate system. “If you shift the language from Spanish to German to Italian, you leave out lots of people,” he says.

As companies like KPNQwest cross one border after another, companies across the Continent are doubling as language schools. At Germany's gas and water utility, RWE, fully 30% of the employees are busy studying English–a necessity for advancement in a company that operates in more than 100 countries. At Ravensburger, a German game-maker, human-resources officials used to conduct interviews in German. Now, they need English to interview applicants in Poland or Britain, says Martin Hurtha, personnel chief. Europeans who don't know English, says Lorenzo Targetti, CEO of Targetti Sankey, an Italian lighting company, are “running a marathon in house shoes.”

More and more, even the rank and file must know English–or risk missing out on vital job opportunities. For example, 1 1/2 years ago the Dutch cable company United Pan-European Communications was building a $20 million TV studio in Amsterdam. This job required scores of electricians, far more than UPC could find in the Netherlands. Only a two-hour train ride south of Amsterdam, however, in the rust belt of French-speaking Belgium and northern France, plenty of electricians were available. But the Dutch and American managers at UPC wanted everyone at the project to speak and understand the same language. So UPC flew in a platoon of electricians from Britain, put them up in hotels during the week, and sent them home every weekend.

Across all sectors and ranks, non-English-speakers face a harder hunt for fewer and poorer jobs. Many of the leading employers in Europe, including Vivendi Universal and CAP Gemini rarely even consider job applicants without English. Secretaries who lack Engl ish can expect to make 30% less–if they're lucky enough to find a job, says temporary-work agency Manpower Inc. And for headhunters such as Sarah Mulhern of Spencer Stuart in Paris, English is not a option anymore: “It's a requirement.” She recalls working with one French technical whiz who didn't know English. She landed him a job at Excite–but only after he had completed an intensive language course.

True, line workers in many manufacturing plants can still get by in their native language. But workers who want to advance find themselves back at school–learning English. At DaimlerChrysler, workers seeking a promotion to team leader on the shop floor take English classes after hours. Even union representatives duck into English classrooms at the company's Unterturkheim plant. Says one union official at the plant: “We need it to speak to union officials in America.”

Europe's English divide closely mirrors its economy. The wealthy parts–Sweden, the Netherlands, western Germany, and cosmopolitan cities such as Paris and Milan–are also rich in English, and getting richer. English-poor regions, from the Mediterranean to Eastern Europe, lose out on foreign investment and jobs. Only 5% to 10% of the workforce at Italian banks speaks good English, estimates Michele Appendino, co-founder of European venture fund Net Partners. If those banks merge with German or French banks, as expected, the common language will likely be English. Those who don't speak it risk becoming foreigners in their own banks–if they're lucky enough to hold on to their jobs.

For the flip side, look no further than Ireland. It has enjoyed job growth averaging 5% a year since the mid-'90s, with many of the new employment resulting from U.S. investments. Ireland's greatest advantage? Its young, English-speaking workforce, says Aidan Brady, CEO of Citigroup in Dublin, is the main reason Citigroup put down roots there.

“GONERS.” The pressure to be an anglophone has resulted in a bonanza for English-language schools. Barcelona's Wall Street Institute, for example, has opened 35 new language centers throughout Europe in the past 1 1/2 years, making a total of roughly 300 schools across the Continent. Students pay an average of $1,400 for 120 hours of courses. “They've realized that they're goners if they don't take English classes,” says Wall Street Institute Paris President Natanael Wright. European governments are also pitching in. In France, Italy, and Spain, political leaders are pushing to introduce their nations' children to English at earlier ages. Nearly 300,000 Spaniards are piling into state language schools this year.

But teaching English to the whole Continent is no easy task. Teachers are scarce: Their English often provides them with more lucrative opportunities than teaching in a public school. “All our English teachers are getting swallowed up by DaimlerChrysler,” complains one school administrator near the company's Stuttgart headquarters. When they don't have the chance to learn English in the classroom, high school graduates from Europe's south and east flock to Britain and Ireland to wait tables and learn English on the cheap.

FRENCH FARCE. A rearguard action is being fought against the English advance. When French Defense Minister Alain Richard approved English as the common language of a joint French-German army battalion, Le Figaro dubbed him “the gravedigger” of the French language. In Brussels, the European Commission is bending over backwards to avoid the impression that it favors English, even as English establishes itself as the de facto language of the EC. Its current effort, known as Europe's Year of Languages, pushes English as one of 11 languages, no more important than Greek or Finnish.

Europe's leaders, of course, know how vital English is: Just like CEOs and software engineers, they need it to talk to each other. Politicians such as Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who both require interpreters, miss out on English-language dinner chatter and one-to-one schmoozing at Euro-gatherings. One Italian language school, International House, offers English lessons by phone to politicians on the run.

The English divide is age-related, too. According to a European Union study, 67% of Europeans between 15 and 24 say they can speak English, compared with only 18% of those over 55. Thus Europe's relentless drive for English empowers kids around the Continent, wreaking havoc with hierarchies in companies and families alike. Take a look at the families of Spaniards and Italians visiting Paris: The English-speaking children appear to be in charge, ordering food in English for their parents, and arranging early-morning taxis to the airport.

But what's amusing in families is dead serious in the work-place. Thirty-nine-year-old Nadine Koulecheff, a high school graduate in Paris, saw in the late '90s that one answering machine could put an end to her career as a receptionist. She spent three months in a 40-hour-per-week English class associated with France's National Employment Office. At the end, she successfully interviewed in English for a secretarial job at a medical laboratory. “My English got me the job,” she says. She uses it every day–mostly to talk to her Italian boss.

That's the Europe that's taking shape. For the ever-growing masses of English speakers, basic communication is now a breeze. The Babel of old hardly interferes, and instead adds richness and texture to life in Europe. But for those on the other side of the Great Divide, Europe's unification–its opportunities and pitfalls alike–is still shrouded in mystery. The operating instructions for Europe, it's now clear, are written in English.

By Stephen Baker and Inka Resch in Paris, with Kate Carlisle in Rome and Katharine A. Schmidt in Stuttgart

Getting Ahead

Italian Prime Minister
Long took private English lessons, but aides discourage him from using it in public, fearing a gaffe. He understands more English than he speaks.

French President
Learned English doing odd jobs around the U.S. and was briefly engaged to an American woman. It's not as good as his Russian, but Chirac is more comfortable in English than his Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.

Spanish Prime Minister
Elementary level, an embarrassment for Aznar. Spanish media roasted him after a meeting with President Clinton in which Spanish King Juan Carlos I served as interpreter.

Chairman, Nokia
Excellent. He learned it at school in Britain and later on assignment as a Citibank manager in London. Ollila, like most Finns, also speaks Swedish but sticks to English even with Swedes.

CEO, Vivendi-Universal
Like many grads of France's Grandes Ecoles, Messier speaks fluent English. And his French accent should take an American turn as he settles into his new luxury apartment in Manhattan


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