Learning to speak English does not come easily nor cheaply in emerging markets, where spoken proficiency in English is mostly the prerogative of the elites. Consequently, non-English speaking locals in subsidiaries at emerging markets have had harder career prospects. However, this will no longer be so.
As Anglo-Saxon multinationals expanded during the last century, hiring English speakers in emerging markets helped their headquarters bridge the communication gap with their workforce abroad. Depending on the activity, the general idea was that you could manage about 100-200 people through one local English-speaking person. This policy did not ensure that multinationals were hiring the best talent for managerial positions. Perhaps quite on the contrary, because grit may be the first casualty of an individual’s pampered elitist upbringing, which is what paved the way for acquired proficiency in English. But at least a multinational could lazily get the message across, even if it alienated the majority of the non-English speaking locals who would work themselves up to a glass-ceiling at subsidiaries.
In addition, in the process of hiring and promoting mostly English-speaking elites, multinationals midwifed the equivalent of a twentieth century Comprador class.
The Compradors (from Comprar – to buy, in Portuguese) were originally the Chinese who, in the seventeenth century, would procure locally for the Portuguese merchants. Then as now, in the process of serving at multinationals the current Comprador class acquires foreign tastes, values and styles that undermine their capacity to lead locals because they do not identify with the Comprador class, stunting leadership development and shortchanging productivity.
All this is about to come to an end.
Piggybacking on existing technologies like smartphones, Artificial Intelligence and Cloud Computing — a mobile simultaneous interpretation service is rapidly evolving. Software and communication giants like IBM’s Watson and ATT have already teamed up to offer simultaneous interpretation services. As of July 2017, Google Translate offered speech-to-speech translation services for 32 languages. Naturally, the initial focus is on high purchasing power clients with limited but urgent interpretation needs like tourists seeking a restaurant in a foreign city.
But Artificial Intelligence solutions are rapidly improving the accuracy of the translations and infiltrating other jargon islands. Soon the simultaneous interpretation services will be catering to more specific fields such as medical and business ones. Just think of the interpretation services offered through Skype Business. The solutions will soon be so useful that demand for them will explode, helping finance fast improvements.
Most will win with this. Subsidiaries of corporations will now be able to hire also for character, skills, and attitude in a much larger pool of local talent, including non-English speakers. Consequently, productivity will improve as well as social justice will, because the monopolist power of local Comprador classes will be undermined. The pace of change will be faster within those countries that do not already have English-speaking locals. Most Latin American countries and China will win, as the technology is likely to benefit first those that speak the major world languages. In those countries, the vast majority of people will win.
However, technology will be a somewhat mixed blessing to India as a whole. From the country’s point of view, the gains from the potential for empowerment of local non-English speakers must be weighed against English-speaking India’s loss to competitors in places like Latin America and China. Just think of the windfall leverage gained by call centers based in the Dominican Republic, within the same time zone as New York City. Operators there, at the same time of day, will be able to answer in Spanish questions put to them in English. The overall largesse of the benefits of these upcoming technologies will take longer to materialize in India, where so many local languages are spoken. I believe it will be largely up to Indians to develop the necessary software, choosing languages to interpret into English with an eye on commercial need and capacity to pay for those services. My initial guess is that initial developmental efforts will focus on Hindi and Bengali.
Effective simultaneous translation for other European languages or from other Indian languages may take longer but it will happen too. Soon, technology will break everywhere the yoke of the English Language and language-based Comprador classes will wither everywhere.
For some time, there will still be a role for teachers of English, as well as for interpreters and translators. But if today, as a Latin-American, I had to recommend a child of mine what to usefully spend their time on, learning to speak English would not make it to the top of my list.