English and Innovation

Propelled by digital tools, the 21st century has seen an unprecedented exchange of information and ideas across borders. As global English skills improve and the costs of travel and communication decline, that exchange will only speed up.

Today, scientists and engineers simply cannot afford to miss out on global innovation because of language barriers, and it is not just them who need to access new ideas. In every field, professionals need to stay abreast of international best practices. For companies, too, a culture of English proficiency makes it possible to tap pools of talent and expertise that, just a few years ago, would have been out of reach.

Reflecting these trends, we have found a high correlation between English proficiency and the Global Talent Competitiveness Index (Graph A), a report that assesses a country’s ability to attract, develop, and retain skilled workers.

Meetings of minds

Tools for collaboration are only getting better. Online, work-based social media and collaboration tools are on the rise, enabling more frequent and more casual communication between employees in different locations. Back in the physical world, international conferences and summits are now the norm in a wide range of fields, allowing colleagues and competitors to network, learn about each other’s research, and develop new ideas. In 2017, the Union of International Associations cataloged 10,786 meetings and conventions in 166 countries around the world. There were more than 3,700 TEDx conferences in 2018 alone.

Exciting as this collaborative ecosystem can be, even the best collaboration platform cannot function when employees do not speak the same language. And those meetings and conferences take place almost entirely in English. From teachers to CEOs, those who speak English have broader contact with their peers and better access to the best minds and ideas in their fields.

See and be seen

Cutting-edge scientific research today proceeds through complex, collaborative projects. The days of individual labs working on their own is coming to an end, and leveraging the resources of teams in different labs is often a requirement for funding. In 2017, 60% of articles in the Nature Index were international collaborations, a higher proportion than ever before. It is not surprising, then, to find a strong correlation between a country’s English proficiency and the number of scientific and technical journal articles per capita (Graph B) as well as its investment in R&D, in terms of both capital and human resources.

In terms of the number of papers published, China’s scientific production is progressively outstripping that of the United States. But in the past, the impact of the country’s research was hampered by a lack of international collaboration. Papers published in English are much likelier to be cited than those published in another language. In November 2018, The Economist reported that bonuses for Chinese scientists who get a paper published in Nature were as high as 165,000 USD.

Where new ideas come from

Diversity has an impact on innovation – an impact that researchers are only beginning to fully understand. A growing body of academic research shows that diverse groups make better decisions, rely more on facts than opinions, and demonstrate less cognitive bias than homogenous groups. Cultural diversity, in particular, is correlated with innovation. Research by McKinsey & Company in 2017 found that companies with executive teams in the top quartile for cultural diversity are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. And English proficiency enables diversity: of the top 100 companies in the Thomson Reuters IX Global Diversity and Inclusion Index 2018, only seven are headquartered in countries with low English proficiency.

Graph A: English and Talent

Global Talent Competitiveness Index EF EPI Score Source: Lanvin & Monteiro, 2019

Graph B: English and Scholarship

Scientific and Technical Journal Articles (per million people) EF EPI Score Source: World Bank, 2016

Bright Ideas

English proficiency is positively correlated with several key measures of innovation, including public investment in research and development, and researchers and technicians per capita.

EF EPI Score Source: World Bank, 2016