Companies go beyond lip service: Language courses for employees are growing, Roger Trapp reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MOST companies believe that multi-lingual staff improve customer satisfaction. But fewer than one in five offer employees training in foreign languages.

If this finding by researchers at the Institute of Manpower Studies is depressing, the first part at least is an improvement. While language training organisations report that many companies are still arrogant enough to believe that they can continue to insist that customers and / or suppliers speak English, the tide is apparently turning.

The Centre for Information on Language Training (Cilt), for instance, is responding to growing company interest in the subject by drawing up plans for a national business languages service. This would act as a consultancy, offering companies access to a database of organisations that provide this type of training and help on how to introduce it.

At the same time, an organisation called the Languages Lead Body has published a guide to the national language standards drawn up under the National Vocational Qualifications/Scottish Vocational Qualifications system. This, according to Penny Rushbrook of Cilt, is 'all about what employers need in terms of languages rather than what teachers want to give them.'

There are still many organisations that offer tuition in just about every language imaginable - as shown by the list of exhibitors for the London Language Show, sponsored by the Independent on Sunday and to be held in October at the Business Design Centre in Islington. But there is general agreement that the recession has weeded out a lot of the 'cowboys'.

Giles Piercy, business sales manager of Linguaphone, which provides a range of learning methods to individuals as well as businesses, said there were signs of businesses becoming more demanding about what they expected of language classes. This was in turn putting pressure on the training organisations. He said that in the past when a company had questioned why people it had sent for paid lessons were no more fluent than when they started, it had been easy for a trainer to blame the student.

If a business introduced the kind of stringent reporting structure and goals that it applied to other activities, this should not happen. 'The teaching organisation should take the responsibility to make the company aware if its people are not turning up,' said Mr Piercy.

Philip Scoones, business development manager of Linguarama, which specialises in training employees in foreign languages, also sees companies becoming more focused in their approach. 'They're looking at the precise needs of departments and individuals,' he said.

As a result, several methods were being used - depending on what was most appropriate. For instance, the company, which also teaches English to overseas employees at Cheney Court, a country house outside Bath, combines crash courses in foreign countries with regular classroom tuition as part of the long-term development. But it can offer 'total immersion' if a need suddenly arises.

(Photographs omitted)