We're tongue-tied in Europe

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The Independent Online
It is easy to suppose that English has become a universal language and we need master no other. It is the mother tongue of 300 million people worldwide and is spoken as a second or foreign language by 400 million more. Nevertheless, only one in eight of the world's population speaks any English, and most are concentrated in the UK, North America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. English is little used in two of the world's richest economies, the European Union and the Far East. Nor is it much used in the areas forecast to have the greatest growth potential - Eastern Europe, China and South America.

The extent to which British industry is hampered by poor language skills is revealed in a study published in 1991 by the Institute of Employment Studies. It revealed that 60 per cent of the 2,000 companies surveyed conduct business with foreign-speaking clients and 23 per cent claim that lack of a particular language creates a barrier to business in certain countries. The survey found particularly acute problems arise with French, German and Spanish speakers and with contacts from Eastern Europe and China. All firms with overseas activities reported some unmet needs for the language of their most important business contacts. Hilary Metcalf, author of the study, writes: "Thirty-five per cent of companies found that English was adequate for business with their more important clients. The countries where English was least often adequate, and so required language ability, were Germany, Spain and Italy, together with Eastern Europe." She also pointed out: "As well as language capability, understanding cultural and business norms of foreign business contacts was regarded as very important and seen to affect the success of the business."

A later survey by the Institute of Management found that although 44 per cent of managers claim to have understood 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 could reply to these letters in the same language.

A survey of small- and medium-sized businesses by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching found that one-third of UK exporters miss opportunities because of poor language skills. Our competitors do much better. For example, a European business survey by Grant Thornton found that 90 per cent of businesses in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Greece have an executive able to negotiate in another language. Only 38 per cent of British companies have someone who can do so.

The IES survey looked mainly at company language needs in relation to existing customers. However, what of potential customers? The Department of Trade and Industry summarises the findings of the Survey of European Companies (FLAIR): "A significant number of companies are facing language and cultural difficulties as they are expanding into, or within, new markets where English has not been traditionally spoken. The regions where there is the greatest prospect of growth are now virtually all non-English-speaking - such as the Pacific Rim and other parts of East Asia, South America and Eastern Europe."

It is significant that all Australian schools now teach Japanese as the first foreign language. For many years French was the main foreign language taught in British schools, and there has been a welcome growth in German, Spanish and Italian. But even those entering modern language courses at university are linguistically conservative. The greatest number of applications last year, in order of preference, were French, German and Spanish. Only then did Japanese and Chinese enter the lists in fourth and fifth places.

The Department for Education and Employment last year launched an initiative to encourage designated schools to specialise in modern languages. To qualify schools must raise pounds 100,000 in private sponsorship, which is matched with government funding. This is leading to some imaginative initiatives. The Royal Grammar School at High Wycombe, as part of its attempt to become a language college, has added Bahasa Malaysia to its curriculum. In addition to the language, students learn something of the culture. Next year the school plans to start Japanese and Italian. Sponsoring the Bahasa Malaysia course are British Aerospace, HSBC Holdings, Rolls-Royce and Vickers. The example of the school and its sponsors needs to be widely emulated if we are to compete successfully in the world's growth markets.