Time for British exporters to mind their languages

A head-in-the-sand attitude to speaking foreign languages is out- of-date and out of touch, says Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is a multi-cultural society. We are one of the world's most successful exporters into world markets, and we attract more inward investment than any other country in Europe. We also draw huge numbers of overseas visitors for our tourist industry. And many firms in Britain have overseas subsidiaries, or are subsidiaries or partners of overseas firms, or are part of multi- national companies. Few countries have better international credentials - or a greater need to communicate with others.

Yet we are notorious for our inability to communicate in any language other than our own. Does this matter? A language may be helpful on overseas holidays, but is it vocationally valuable?

English is one of the world's most widely used languages, so it is easy to suppose it is understood universally. Although it is the mother tongue of 300 million people worldwide, and is spoken as a second or foreign language by 400 million more, only one in eight of the world's population speaks any English.

Most English speakers are in the UK, North America, Africa and the Indian sub-continent. However, the world's richest economies outside North America, as well as those with the greatest prospect of growth, are now virtually all non-English speaking. We need to be able to communicate with people in the European Union and the so-called tiger economies of the Far East, as well as in eastern Europe and South Africa.

Several studies show how our business is hampered by poor language skills. The largest was a study of 2,000 companies carried out for the Department of Employment by the Institute for Employment Studies. This found that 60 per cent of firms conduct business with foreign-speaking clients, and that 23 per cent say that lack of a particular language is a barrier to business in certain countries.

The study found particularly acute problems with French, German and Spanish companies and with contacts from eastern Europe and China. All those firms which regularly did overseas business reported that some of their staff needed to improve their foreign language skills.

A survey of small- and medium-sized businesses by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching (CILT) also found that one-third of UK exporters miss out on trade opportunities because of poor language skills.

One might think that employers, having admitted they lose business opportunities, want to ensure that they have adequate language skills in-house. However, this does not appear to be reflected in their recruitment and training. Training Trends 12, an Industrial Society survey, reported that foreign languages and international competitiveness were the topics with the least priority for training of senior managers - ranking 13th and 14th in importance.

Last year, research by Chartered Accountants Grant Thornton for their annual European Business Survey found that only 38 per cent of British companies employing up to 500 people have an executive able to negotiate in another language. This is exactly the same proportion as they found in 1993. These companies provide some 70 per cent of all jobs in the private sector.

In contrast, 90 per cent or more of similar sized businesses in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Malta have executives who can do so. Two-thirds of these companies across Europe have at least one executive who can negotiate in more than one language.

Michael Rogerson, a partner in Grant Thornton says the reason why small companies in Britain do little language training is that "entrepreneurs look for an immediate return, and training is a long-term investment". This does not explain why our competitors in similar sized companies have a far higher level of language proficiency. However, Mr Rogerson suggests that in some European countries there are related languages which are easier to learn.

Is language learning a good investment for the individual? In the long- term the answer is yes. The growing globalisation of business makes it vital that managers are sensitive to the cultures of those with whom they work and do business. And one can have little understanding of a foreign culture unless one understands the language. In some European countries a manager who cannot speak a foreign language is already considered illiterate. Eventually this will happen in Britain. It is worth noting that growing numbers of MBA courses teach a language, while in a few the teaching is bilingual.

Managers who know the language and business culture of a major overseas country - especially in the European Union, eastern Europe, China, or one of the countries of the Pacific basin - are likely to be in ever-growing demand.

Companies are unlikely to provide basic language training for managers, but they may well develop any existing capability as part of one's management development - by further tuition and even overseas secondments. However, as a starting point, self-learning language lessons are not expensive. The most popular are evening classes or self-learning packs.

The cheapest are probably the BBC's regularly repeated television and radio language teaching programmes which should be accompanied with self- learning packs available for between pounds 8.99 and pounds 12.99 in bookshops. There are also BBC language packages for business use. Starter courses are available in French, German, Italian and Spanish - each consisting of seven videos, a 280-page course book, four 75-minute audio-cassettes, along with other materials. These cost pounds 245 plus VAT.

Linguaphone offers study packs in 32 languages, typically costing pounds 200- pounds 250, and can supply courses from other companies in another 12 languages. Many universities also have self-access language centres open to both students and businesses.

More advanced language skills can be developed through the Open University's Centre for Modern Languages which provides distance learning language courses which include substantial tutorial support.