Education: Languages - It's good to talk to foreigners

Going on a business trip? Then your local university could be your first port of call
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the ways that universities in Britain today serve their local business community and augment their own incomes is by offering language, translating and interpreting services.

Warwick University is perhaps the market leader. With acknowledgements to Francis Bacon, its language centre has adopted the slogan: "Knowledge of foreign languages is power in international markets." It argues that it makes good sense for businessmen to be able to understand what needs to be said in the language that potential customers are speaking.

Some 60 per cent of the UK's exports are to non-English speaking countries, and 33 per cent of small to medium-sized companies in a recent survey encountered a language or culture barrier doing business overseas, a figure almost twice as high as that for Spain and Germany.

Warwick offers tailor-made courses throughout the year in Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Czech, Polish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and Greek.

It tailors its training to the specific language needs of the companies it serves in the local west Midlands area. Teaching can be done on a one-to-one or group basis. Teaching can take place in the centre itself or at company's premises.

Warwick offers beginners' classes, refresher courses, and advanced training, intensive and immersion courses. You could learn a language in a fortnight in one of the centre's intensive immersion courses.

Every client is offered an analysis to determine what kind of training is required. It could just be in the written word in faxes and e-mails or speaking over the telephone without the benefit of body language or eye contact. Teaching may vary according to whether pupils are engineers, managers or marketing personnel.

Philip Parker, the centre's manager, says that if business people have a visit scheduled to a target country in, say, two or three weeks, they can devote one or two weeks to learning the language and arrive in that country with it fresh in their mind. He adds that if a client does not need to visit the country but is in touch on the phone that is quite a different training need.

Mr Parker says the centre will only put intensive courses together if it considers they will work and the client has the time.

The staff has a full-time staff of 11 lecturers and tutors who organise courses and mentor client companies. It has a part-time pool of up to 70 language lecturers who are trained in the Warwick way. The average number of teaching contact hours is around 2,500 a year. The average cost is pounds 30 to pounds 40 an hour, although rates for group teaching are slightly higher. The centre also performs a lot of translation work and does some interpreting.

At Hull University, the Business Language Bureau offers three types of training to local businesses. Individuals can enrol on self-study courses in the university's language institute. These can be for three months, six months or a year. Students are given open access to the institute's facilities, which include cassettes, books, software, satellite television and an open-learning adviser.

This form of study is useful for brushing up written language skills, although there is limited scope for conversational practice because there is no contact with native speakers. More than 50 languages, including Thai, Malay, Bengali, Hindi and several African dialects, can be learnt.

The second form of training involves class courses with a tutor at times set by the university. These can be for groups of sales staff or managers at beginners, intermediate or advanced level. These normally last for an average of 90 minutes a session.

The final form of training consists of tailor-made courses for groups of one to three people designed to bring language skills up to the required level to execute a project, pass an exam or undertake a field trip abroad.

These can be weekly drip-feed courses, semi-intensive (15 hours a week), intensive (30 hours a week) or immersion (50 hours a week). They can be staged to suit the client on campus or on company premises.

This kind of training is mainly available in French,German, Spanish and Italian, although courses are also currently running in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. A semester of self-study will cost pounds 60, drip-feed classes from pounds 43 to pounds 86 a week, intensive tuition pounds 250 a week and immersion tuition pounds 595 a week.

Dr Catherine Greensmith, the director of the bureau, also has a team of 100 freelance translators who translate some one and a half million words a year in 25 different languages. A relatively small amount of interpreting work takes place as well, for example, on trade missions to Poland, Russia, France and the Netherlands.

For more than 25 years Sheffield Hallam University has been helping local and national companies with their language training needs. Its language centre can normally set up a tailor-made course with about 14 days notice.

It offers courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish at a variety of stages from complete beginner to advanced. Clients also have the opportunity to use the centre's drop-in workshop where they can practise their listening skills, improve their fluency and get to grips with grammar.

In the east Midlands De Montfort University's Centre for Language Learning offers tailor-made tuition or regular classes in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian. It also provides translation services and does a limited amount of interpreting.