Why is English so important?
We spoke with Christopher Newcombe, Assistant Director English Language Courses at the British Council Singapore to understand why English is so important.
Earlier this year a student of mine taking an IELTS preparation course at the British Council approached me, frustration and a touch of sadness writ across his face, and asked why he had to study English. For a few seconds, the question stumped me. Why is English so important?
English still maintains its place as the main language of communication for business throughout the world. Even within South East Asia, English has become a common denominator between countries with different languages. In addition to these localised languages, there is an increasing desire for English proficiency as we enter a more globalised world in which people take a phone call in English with a colleague in Scotland before answering an email in Malay or another language.
I asked the student what he wanted to do in the future and he told me he would like to work for a global financial institution. As we talked it became apparent that he was planning to take an International Business degree at university. I asked him which language the course would be in and he said English. For this student, English would be a gateway language to further education and also be important for a successful career in his chosen field.
English is not limited to the business world in terms of its importance. Advancements in the fields of medicine and technology are ones whose success depends on English as a medium to communicate, test and market these products. Over my years of teaching I have regularly engaged scientists, academics and members of NGOs from a range of countries in preparing speeches for large international conferences.
As I spoke to this student, I realised the most important thing for him to achieve his goals was to have a solid foundation of grammar and vocabulary. This would not only help his own written essays and allow him to participate effectively in tutorial discussions and projects but also provide the tools with which to engage in the higher level texts which are a core component of the university experience. Given the volume of reading students do at university it’s important that they have enough language awareness and reading strategies to negotiate these texts. This will allow them to understand the texts as well as engage with them in a timely manner. After all, should you spend four hours trying to understand every text at university it won’t be long before you fall behind in the readings that are set for upcoming lectures!
With education having become a global industry of its own, English again plays a part as a common language for all students. Walk onto most university campuses around the world, from Oxford to Edinburgh, and you will find a range of students from countries far and wide. English often provides a common ground in these situations which facilitates friendship and the sharing of culture between students. Some of the most important things I learned while I was a student at university came from my interactions with students from other countries who had vastly different life experiences to me and brought a different perspective on both the class work and the world around me.
There is no doubt that English can be a difficult and sometimes frustrating language to learn but the rewards both in a professional and personal sense are what learners will remember long after they have closed the door on their English classroom.
Birkbeck, University of London graduate.