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English language skills top of learning list for UAE workers

Workers across the Gulf are heading online to hone their professional English language skills Unsplash
Workers across the Gulf are heading online to hone their professional English language skills
  • Key focus on using business English, from negotiation to email etiquette
  • Belief that English is an essential skill in GCC’s modern world of work
  • English language learning global market will grow to $69bn by 2029

An online course in English for career development from the University of Pennsylvania has emerged as the most popular course in the Mena region and among the top five courses in Gulf countries.

In addition, a course in how to write professional emails in English from the Georgia Institute of Technology ranked among the five most studied courses in the UAE, according to data from US-based global online learning platform Coursera.

Studies in data offered by Google, machine learning from Stanford University, and successful negotiation tactics from the University of Michigan were also in the UAE’s top five.

Learning and development experts say this is an indication that more candidates are realising the importance of the English language to navigate work in the region, as employers demand better communication skills and seek antidotes to business communication blunders in formal emails and official documents.

“It does not surprise me at all that people have realised that English is the lingua franca of business,” said Dawn Metcalfe, a workplace culture advisor, trainer and author. 

“For good or for bad, that is just the truth right now. It may change in the future but certainly, for now, it has a huge impact on one’s career whether one can communicate effectively in English.

“Beyond that, what’s interesting is that they’re not just looking at learning English, they’re also looking at negotiation and email etiquette.

“It’s not just the language itself but it’s how we use the language and communicate more widely.”

Abdulmuttalib Hashim, managing director of TBH Advisory, which helps UAE employers attract, retain and prepare young local talent for the world of work, said both Gulf and expat candidates realise the importance of English skills to be able to manoeuvre around the job market and communicate with customers or clients.

“When you have this segment of people who come from countries where their native tongue or official language is not English, and they come here and see the unofficial second language is English, they are interested in learning the language,” he told AGBI.

“As a UAE national, I come from the generation where the English language was first experimented with in public school – it was introduced in my school when I was in grade four.

“We’ve come a long way. Nationals in the GCC now perhaps speak better English than in other Arab countries.”

Schoolchildren in the UAE usually start English lessons at an early age

Hashim added: “There are still nationals whose English is not very strong but they understand that and realise that in order for them to be part of the modern world of work and business they need to be able to understand it.

“[Also] you can hire people who communicate very well in English, but they don’t have the ability to have English comprehension when they read an email or complaint from a customer. It becomes a big problem.

“There are some hilarious stories of people writing formal and official emails and communications using emojis, and using words that people use when chatting on social media. Instead of writing ‘you’ they write ‘u’.”

Metcalfe added that the basics can go wrong when people come from backgrounds where they are not exposed to “a global way of thinking”.

“This is where we are now in the Mena region, where there are reasonable expectations such as when you respond to an email you spell the person’s name right and you answer the questions [asked] in the email,” she said.

Use of language can have a huge impact on people’s perceptions, she added.

“My favourite example of this is that for Western Europeans, particularly, it would be normal to start an email with ‘Dear Dawn’ and then carry on,” she explained. “What is not normal is to start an email with only ‘Dear’.

“It comes across as patronising, annoying and disrespectful. I know that’s not how it’s meant but that is how it’s perceived.

“[Another] thing that I see happening a lot is the cc-ing. Certain corporate cultures, organisational cultures, nationalities, are more likely to do that.

“There’s more of a sense of everybody needs to know about it and everybody needs to be kept in the loop. There are other organisations where that’s just not the case, where the expectation is ‘I don’t need to be kept informed until I need to be kept informed’.”

Person, Human, Laptop
Companies are recommending English business writing courses to improve staff’s email etiquette

Career-relevant learning

According to this year’s Arab Youth Survey, eight in 10 young Arabs are concerned about the quality of education in their country and 32 percent said unemployment is the biggest obstacle facing the region.

“Talent in the region is predominantly looking at career advancement and credit as key goals of education,” Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, said. 

“As a result, more career-relevant learning avenues must be developed and made accessible to learners.

“It’s really critical to understand what jobs are in high demand, what skills are required for those jobs, and what content teaches those skills. 

“From what we’ve discovered, most people don’t know what skills they need and what jobs are available. That’s what we are trying to solve.

“Online skills development is a great way to do it because it keeps up with the rate of change, delivers at very low cost, and you can integrate it with existing programmes.”

Coursera supports the skills development of 681,000 learners in the UAE, 723,000 in Saudi Arabia, and more than 6.2 million learners across the wider Mena region, according to figures from June 2022. 

This includes 320,000 new registered learners across the region in Q2 2022.

Government entities like Abu Dhabi School of Government, National eLearning Center in Saudi Arabia, and King Abdulaziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity (Mawhiba) have been working with Coursera to upskill and reskill employees and populations.

The size of the global market for English language learning is expected to reach $69.62 billion by 2029, up from $11.99 billion in 2020 and growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 9.5 percent, according to Adroit Market Research.

“When you look at Gulf countries, certainly with the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, the physical capital is primo,” Maggioncalda added. 

“Money can buy that. Money has bought that. When I see and talk to institutions here in the Middle East, I think there’s a recognition that the resources that have come from the oil and gas industry have really helped to build infrastructure. The next big thing to build is human capital.”

Conversely, Hashim said that because of the growing prevalence of English, a major concern in local society is how to balance this with protecting and promoting the Arabic language. 

This was highlighted in the Arab Youth Survey, which also found that 55 percent of young people surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 said the Arabic language was less important to them than their parents.

This figure falls to 40 percent among those surveyed in the GCC.

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