English Language Competencies in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Deshini Chetty

To compete in today’s fiercely globalised marketplace, some of the largest pharmaceutical corporations have formed alliances with generic manufacturers around the world. As a result it is not uncommon for the research on a drug to be carried out in Switzerland or Japan and its manufacture to take place in India, South Africa or China. Where companies operate internationally, the communications between operations, research and manufacturing is normally in English. One of the keys to operational success is managing the use of English and other languages and providing appropriate training for those who need it.

Deshini Chetty, Assistant Director, Business Development from Cambridge English Language Assessment, discusses why English is the language for international communication in medicine[1]and outlines the issues that can arise when English language proficiency varies amongst members of staff.  She goes on to identify the importance of effective communication for pharmaceutical manufacturing and examines the practical steps manufacturers can put in place to ensure robust communication standards for those members of staff who need it.

In order to compete more effectively in the face of current global economic turbulence, a number of pharmaceutical companies are changing the way they operate. A recent report[2]found that,  pharmaceutical organisations were increasingly outsourcing to offshore locations and collaborating with international partners to maximise efficiency. The fast growing economies of India and China are two of the most popular offshoring locations followed by Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. However drug research and development continues to be carried out at established centres of excellence in developed countries. Today, it is not uncommon for the research on a drug to be carried out in Switzerland or Japan and its manufacture to take place on a completely different continent. Whilst there is a large, flexible, cheap workforce available in countries such as India and China, there are challenges inherent in developing a sustainable talent pool in offshoring locations.

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[3]has identified some common issues that multinational pharmaceutical companies face in this situation. These include inadequate language skills and poor interpersonal skills caused by cultural differences. These communication barriers must be addressed as they impact on a whole range of fundamental, operational and performance issues. 

Why English?

English is generally accepted as the language for international communication in medicine and business so whatever their lingua-franca, all pharma companies need to be able to communicate effectively in English.

While it is reasonable to expect that C-level executives and senior managers are fluent in both spoken and written English, it is not always practical to demand the same level of proficiency in English across all job levels. The key to successful communication is ensuring that all members of staff in offshore sites have appropriate proficiency in written and spoken English. Members of staff need to be able to understand relevant instructions, guidelines and warnings expressed in English in order to safely, accurately and effectively execute their job function.  Effective communication will also be impacted by cultural mores and behaviours – a key factor to bear in mind within any international context.

But how can this be achieved? Firstly, it is important to set a minimum level of English language proficiency for staff in line with international standards. This benchmark needs to apply to both new and existing staff across the organisation – not just for one manufacturing plant. The standard of English language required must of course be in line with what language skills are required of each role. Ultimately, staff must be able to communicate effectively in English with clear pronunciation that is easy for native English and non-native speakers to understand and be able to read and write documentation. 

A framework for easy reference

The appropriate minimum language ability level for job roles can be set in line with the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). All leading language assessments are categorised according to the CEFR and it is today the internationally recognised system used by businesses, education and immigration authorities to measure language proficiency. It is made up of three groups which are: A (Basic speaker), B (Independent Speaker) and C (Proficient speaker). The scale ranges from A1 for beginners to C2 for those who have mastered a language.

For example a person at C1 can converse effortlessly in English and can be easily understood by native speakers and learners from other countries. They can understand complex verbal discussion and read long reports, all of which are crucial skills for senior pharmaceutical professionals. Someone at A2 can understand straightforward information within a known area, such as on products and simple instructions, textbooks or reports on familiar topics – suitable for factory floor staff.

Effective communication

It is important to ensure that existing personnel also meet the minimum level of English –which can be carried out using the BULATS testing service or by using internationally recognised qualifications such as Cambridge English Advanced or Cambridge English Key. If any gaps are identified, learning support should be provided as part of the individual’s on-going training and development. Successful language learning is not just about knowing grammar and vocabulary - it’s about knowing how to communicate in real-life day to day situations.


1Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine - The Language of Medicine, Henrik R Wulff MD, April 2004

[2]Workforce Reductions in Pharmaceuticals – Outsourcing, External Innovation and Collaboration Will Drive the Industry Forward: GBI Research 2012

[3]Offshoring in the pharmaceutical industry, Department of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008

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