Education: The price of sending traders tongue-tied into the world

Britain's future markets are turning a deaf ear to English, so why do so few business people learn another language? By Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
The British are among Europe's worst linguists. But is there today any real need to master a foreign language now that English seems to be so widely understood around the world? English is the mother tongue of 300 million people worldwide, another 300 million use it as a second language and a further 100 million use it fluently as a foreign language. English is an official language in more than 60 countries and has an important place in 20 more. Two-thirds of the world's scientists write in English and 80 per cent of the information stored in electronic databases is in English.

On the other hand, most English speakers are found in North America, where more than 230 million people are English speakers, the UK, the Indian subcontinent and Africa. English is little used in western Europe and the Far East, two of the world's richest markets. Nor is it much used in the areas expected to have the greatest growth potential over the next few decades - eastern Europe, South America and China.

Britain relies on its exports and has to compete ever more effectively in world markets. More than 60 per cent of our exports now enter non-English- speaking countries, and that proportion is expected to increase. A briefing paper for the Department of Trade and Industry's National Languages for Export Campaign notes: "Few of the market opportunities for the UK are in areas of the world where English has traditionally been spoken."

Several studies show how the UK's competitiveness is hampered by poor language skills. For example, research shows that 30 per cent of small and medium-sized companies in the north of England are aware of having lost trading opportunities as a direct result of their inability to operate in the customer's language or understand foreign business cultures and environments.

Britain is bottom of the the list of European Union member countries, except for Eire, in terms of the number of companies with executives able to negotiate in a foreign language. A survey by Grant Thornton found that only 38 per cent of British companies had an executive who could operate in another language, compared with 90 per cent in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Greece. Almost half (49 per cent) of German firms had executives who were able to negotiate in three languages or more.

A survey of 2,000 companies by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) found that more than 60 per cent conduct business with foreign-speaking clients and that all of these have unmet needs for the language of their most important contacts. A quarter said that lack of a particular language was a barrier to business in certain countries. The worst problems arose with French, German and Spanish speakers and with contacts from eastern Europe and China.

An Institute of Management survey found that although 44 per cent of British managers claim to understand a business letter in French, only 14 per cent do so in German,

5 per cent in Spanish and 4 per cent in Italian. Only half of those managers said they were able to reply to the letters in the same language.

There is clearly a huge unmet need for language skills. Yet few employers make a point of recruiting people with language skills or training their existing employees in modern languages. There appears to be a greater desire for language skills among the general population than there is among employers.

Recent research commissioned by the Linguaphone Institute shows that two-thirds of British adults are interested in learning a foreign language, with French favoured by 57 per cent. That suggests that the interest is personal rather than vocational. However, only one in three think it likely that they will take steps to undertake a language course, and only one in nine believe it to be very likely. Even so, that means that 2.7 million adults consider it "very likely" that they will take steps to learn a foreign language.

The survey also shows that the number of adults currently learning a foreign language by any means has grown by more than 25 per cent in the past 10 years. Interest has been greatest among women, people living in the South, those under 35 and those in supervisory, junior administrative, management and professional work.

One of the most popular methods of learning a language is through a distance learning course. That may be broadcast on radio or television, as with the BBC courses; or written texts may be combined with sound recordings and, sometimes, videos, as with Linguaphone and similar programmes.

Most distance foreign language courses have high drop-out rates. It seems that the support of an enthusiastic tutor is often needed to see students through doldrum periods. The Open University's Centre for Modern Languages has recently started to provide distance learning courses which include substantial tutorial support. However the centre's director, Mrs Ann Stevens, says it does not do beginners' courses.

"Students who have done things like Linguaphone, BBC, evening classes ... get stuck because they can't do any more," she says. "As the BBC does beginners' courses in the mainstream languages, we collaborate with them in offering a learning ladder whereby students can move from the BBC courses into ours."

The retention rate has already proved to be exceptionally high, with 89 per cent of those on the French course staying with it until the end of the first year. "My colleagues in the language industry cannot believe that nearly 90 per cent stayed with the course to the end."

It is clear that the distance learning schools are going some way to meet a public need for language courses. But why are employers not doing more to develop, as a vocational skill, languages which they already recognise to be crucial to their competitiveness in world markets? Apart from the one-to-one crash courses which prepare executives for overseas postings at short notice, language training is remarkably inexpensive. Employers need it and can afford it, but most fail to invest in it. Why?n