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South Korean companies battle English to reach world market

No English. No job. No future?

That cannot be true for everyone, but many South Korean companies and individuals seem to believe it is. For them, English is the only thing that stands between them and the vast global markets.

The importance of English as a lingua franca in business deals can’t be overstated. It’s especially so for South Korean companies that depend heavily on exports for growth. Korea’s two-way trade is expected to reach $1 trillion for the first time this year.

The number of South Korean firms seeking new business opportunities in overseas markets will only grow, especially with the July 1 implementation of the Korea-EU free trade agreement. An FTA with the U.S. is also expected to go into effect in the not-too-distant future.

In just seven years since the enactment of the Korea-Chile FTA in 2004, the number of South Korean companies exporting goods to the South American nation jumped 43.1 percent from 873 to 1,249, according to the Korea International Trade Association.

Many, however, believe that Korean companies don’t make the best use of the opportunity to expand their businesses in Chile and other countries in the region because of language barriers.

In 2010, KITA provided 15,434 cases of translation, up 24 percent from a year earlier, to 2,500 local companies, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises.

English-Korean services rose 2.7 percentage points from 2009 to 1.4 percent of all services provided that include Korean-Chinese and Korean-Japanese translation services, according to the state-funded agency.

“Most of the companies that use our translation service are small companies that cannot afford to hire an employee just for that purpose or really have no need to, as their exports are still small,” a KITA official said.

Larger companies, on the other hand, are taking the matter more seriously as their exports and overseas sales are certainly large enough to matter.

One of the first such companies is LG Electronics Inc., the world’s second-largest TV maker, which in 2008 made English the only official language in all company dealings. The policy was later modified to allow simultaneous use of English and Korean in writing to prevent miscommunication.

“Management felt that adopting a Korean/English process was more in line with our culture of ‘moving fast’ because it enabled decision-makers around the world ― regardless of their nationality ― to read the same memo and react quickly,” Ken Hong, director of global communications at LG Electronics, said in an e-mail interview with Yonhap News Agency.

Many others are following suit as their sales and profits in overseas markets are beginning to or will soon overtake those in the local market.

The Korea East-West Power Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of the state-run Korea Electric Power Corp., is set to enforce an English-only policy from next year, though it currently has no foreign employees working at its Seoul headquarters.

“It is based on a need to use English more frequently as the company expands into overseas markets,” a company official said, requesting anonymity. “Increased exposure to the language will help prepare our employees, who will have more and more opportunities to work overseas in the future.”

Currently, Korea East-West Power Co. gets about 10 percent of its revenues from overseas markets, but the company plans to increase the amount to 50 percent in 2020.

OCI Co., the country’s leading manufacturer of polysilicon used in photovoltaic or solar panels, is also urging its employees to prepare themselves for English-only speaking environments as it increasingly looks toward global markets for future sales.

The company plans to adopt English as the sole official language for all its employees in 2012, according to Kim Sung-dae, director of the OCI public relations office.

“The reason behind this is because exports already account for 80 to 90 percent” of sales, Kim told Yonhap.

The move, of course, comes with huge costs for the companies, not just in terms of money but also in time and energy as communications between their employees are often hampered by their poor English skills.

They, however, say it is a price they are willing to pay.

“We are still in the very early stages of the plan and there must be significant amounts of stress placed on our employees,” said the official from Korea East-West Power Co.

“The point is to encourage our employees to continue learning until speaking English becomes natural or sort of a habit.” 

(Yonhap News)
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