Colm McGivern, director of the British Council in Poland



English continues to grow in strength as the de facto global business language. With Poland fast becoming one of the world’s pre-eminent locations for shared-services centres, business process outsourcing and IT hubs, the need for continually improved English-language skills is more important than ever in Poland. Colm McGivern, director of the British Council in Poland, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about its work focused on business communications.

Your offer is widely aimed at students of Business English at every level up to the boardroom. How do you see Poland compared to other countries in which you have worked in terms of ability to use English in the business context – and where is there the greatest demand?

English is soaring in Poland. I see the latest census data tells us that, for the first time, English is the second most spoken language in homes across the country. You hear English much more frequently, and it’s very easy to do business in most contexts. Demand continues to grow in the corporate world; Poland’s economy is growing, sectors are internationalising, and there’s a greater flow of people and daily connectivity online. Powering this is English and everyone knows it to be the international language of business, so the demand is coming from people who are searching for a competitive edge.

Is Poland still a growth market when it comes to numbers of students taking courses across all levels? How does the split between individual learners and corporate courses look? I would guess that the bulk of corporate courses are delivered to multinationals with operations in Poland – but how active are home-grown Polish businesses in improving their English-language skills as they internationalise?

Individuals come to us with vastly different motivations, but the one thing that binds them all is that they know English is the language of opportunity – when you make your English better you improve your opportunities. We work with big companies, but we are also providing more and more tailored short courses with smaller local companies with a specific development purpose in mind. Early in the morning as I walk through our Teaching Centre I see adult groups finishing their lessons in time to get to work. That’s the kind of motivated learner I’d recruit.

Talking to our members, I often hear about the mismatch between how a candidate describes their English-language ability and their actual level in practice. Are there any ways in which non-native English-speaking recruiters can accurately assess candidates’ skills in this area? Does the British Council have any tools that can help with the process?

We see this mismatch all the time; usually, people underestimate the level of their English. Recruiters often rely on a brief conversation in English and leave the candidates writing and reading skills untested. For non-native English-speaking recruiters, we can recommend using Aptis – a British Council-developed test, which is reliable and widely recognised. It is used by different organisations and public bodies in many countries. For example, in Spain, Aptis is an official proof of English language proficiency by multiple public bodies, including 16 autonomous communities.

The British Council stresses the importance of communicating – whether in writing or in speech; cross-cultural communication depends on much more than language alone. On which areas do you place most emphasis? I see your courses on relationship-building, cultural and emotional intelligence aimed at middle- and senior management – what are the key skills that you teach here?

This takes us to the heart of what’s unique about the British Council’s offer for businesses. We want to help people improve their language competence and at the same time develop other skills that are critical for the modern international workplace. It’s an attractive two-for-one deal. Companies can take teams through programmes from a wide menu including Intercultural Understanding, Emotional Intelligence, or Leadership in an international context and at the same time the emphasis will be on improving English, interpersonal communication, and connecting with people to get results. Cultural Intelligence is a growing area, with companies finding they have a leading edge if their people are able to conduct business in a culturally appropriate way – this is more than just avoiding clichés. It’s about showing clients that you really care about the whole relationship you have with them, and not just the next transaction.

I hear apps that ‘gamify’ the process of language acquisition are becoming increasingly popular and that tools using sophisticated AI models will soon have a dramatic impact on the market. Not to mention the tens of thousands of YouTube channels and other social-media platforms – how does all this challenge the traditional paid-for, classroom-based model of language learning? Which YouTuber, for example, do you think is particularly good at teaching English?

We are mid-air in the greatest leap forward that the world of learning has experienced since print was first pressed to paper. I love the range of choices that learners and companies have nowadays, it promotes lifelong learning and adds attractive new methodologies to the menu. It makes sense to choose learning that suits your preferences. There is of course no secret solution to learning a language, but the oldest methods remain constant: an inspirational teacher, and regular practice. At the British Council, we build on this with top-class resources online and in person, the best teachers, quality-controlled curricula, stimulating lessons with people at your level, online or in person, tailoring for customers, feedback, and the opportunity to join nasza wielka rodzina to enjoy the wider cultural offering we make across Poland and the world. If you’re baffled by choice, opt for the marque of quality, and blend all our resources to meet your preferences.

How relevant are the traditional descriptions of language proficiency (A1 Beginner – A2 Elementary – B1 Intermediate – B2 Upper Intermediate – C1 Advanced – C2 Proficient) in today’s rapidly evolving world, where students will typically use a range of complementary courses and apps?

This ‘Common Framework’ is exactly that – something that organisations can use to quickly assess competence. It’s a very good place to start. Then take other things into consideration – how often is English needed? Is it needed for a specific purpose? What kinds of teams are you building? Do you have international ambitions? Do you need to invest to boost capability? When it comes to your business, you will know best, but you may not know about the range of solutions and pathways that we can offer. If you’re wondering how to improve your worker’s English skills, you can contact the British Council.

The British Council has a statutory mission to foster cultural and educational ties with the UK, and is a significant element of the UK’s ‘soft-power’ projection. To what extent does this mission overlap, and to what extent does it clash with, the Council’s commercial targets?

When you join the British Council, you get so much more than language learning. We’re a broad cultural and educational organisation, making connections for the UK with the people of Poland. Our commercial teams work in lockstep alongside our other activities to make a unique offer – from cinema, theatre, music, university exchanges, youth leadership, UK qualifications, and English language to supercharge your future.