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2016-04-03 16:31
By Lee Hyo-sik

On a recent business trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this reporter bumped into a group of UAE businessmen in an elevator at the InterContinental Hotel.

One of them began recounting a recent visit to Korea. The man said, “I went to Korea several months ago to visit the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul. Korean people are wonderful. But people don’t speak English,” suggesting that he had a hard time communicating with his Korean counterparts.

But the man didn’t seem to have a good command of English either, despite complaining how poor the English of doctors and hospital administrators was.

Next day, this reporter went to visit the site of a nuclear power plant, a project undertaken by Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) and other local firms, located some 270 kilometers west of Abu Dhabi in the desert.

During a briefing on the $20 billion project, KEPCO Executive Vice President Lee Hee-yong and other company executives shared their “painful” experiences with English.

According to Lee, for the first three years after the project began in 2010, KEPCO employees were ill-treated by many UAE counterparts because of their poor English abilities.

UAE nationals and multilaterals at the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. (ENEC), all of whom have high proficiency in English, kept picking on KEPCO workers for their mediocre skills in English, as a tactic to secure an edge in negotiations.

KEPCO workers struggled at first to speak English when they had meetings with ENEC employees, as well as writing documents and reports in English. But the workers’ English has improved over the years and their UAE counterparts don’t pick on their English anymore, according to the VP.

These two incidents clearly demonstrate how important a good command of English is for Korean companies doing business abroad.

All Koreans don’t have to be fluent in English. If they don’t want to, they can still find jobs without having to speak English. But with the world increasingly becoming one global village, it is fair to say that having a good command of English can bring many opportunities, professionally and nonprofessionally.

These days, many more Koreans are more comfortable with communicating in English than before. But still being able to speak and write in English well is a huge advantage, particularly for those looking for work.

When opportunities arise, the chances are that fluent English speakers can more easily seize them, compared those who can’t.

Two months ago, this reporter had lunch with an executive whose company was acquired by a multinational firm two years before. The man in his late 40s has been practicing English over the past two years to be better able to communicate with his foreign colleagues and have a larger say in the decision-making process.

Fortunately, his strenuous efforts have paid off, according to the executive who said that he now feels more comfortable when using English to express opinions and write reports.

Several of his Korean subordinates who possess a good command of English were even sent to the firm’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Shanghai, to work side by side with people from all over the world.

“I believe English accounts for 80 percent of what it takes for a person to be successful at foreign companies in Korea, at least at mine,” the executive said.

Given all these real-life experiences, it would be safe to say it is worth spending time and money to improve one’s English skills. Remember what matters: “It’s English, stupid.”

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