Companies must employ linguists to survive, argues Richard Lewis
Successful business people welcome challenges - except the challenge of learning new languages. At least that is the case in Britain. Why?

Well, there's laziness - it's so much easier to get foreigners to speak English. Then there's fear - the English have convinced themselves over the years that they are in no way linguistically talented. And lastly, there is no immediate cash incentive.

According to a recent survey by foreign language experts at LinguaTel, supplier of interpreters, British firms are missing out on millions of pounds' worth of business by ignoring these vital skills. Many callers from overseas give up at the switchboard because of a lack of linguistic ability. Often those who do get through fail to find anyone in the company who can speak their language.

Long-term planning is needed. Leaders of industry must remember that we no longer do most of our business with English-speaking countries; the percentage of our overseas trade carried out within the European Union is increasing. We should be squeezing every drop out of this huge market of 360 million consumers. Where is that good old British pragmatism?

It is not sufficient any more to have a good product at the right price and at the right time. We must be able to sell that product in the language the buyer understands best - his or her own. That is the only way to be sure of clinching the deal.

This is a lesson that foreign companies learnt long ago. We cannot expect the rest of Europe to inconvenience themselves to trade in English when we want their money.

British arrogance in this regard is known the world over. Our negative attitude to Europe is reflected in our negative attitude to learning languages. We will continue to lose potential revenue if we persist with this thinking. People prefer buying from someone who can convey clearly the merits of a product.

Since the Thatcher years, much has been done to make industry lean, efficient and modern. But there is only one way to ensure that companies now sharpen up linguistically - by offering financial inducements for employees who make the effort.

Many companies in Europe do this. In Switzerland, for example, financial incentives are usually offered to all senior employees making the effort to learn any language relevant to the company's needs. These inducements are not only offered to sales people. They are offered in stages. Each improvement in the level of language achieved is rewarded by some extra cash, so that by the time the employee is proficient in another language, he or she can command a reasonable amount extra in earnings. The scheme works effectively.

And don't forget that language skills take longer to learn than sales skills. So, arguably, they are more important. Given the right personality, techniques of selling can be picked up in a short time. Not so the talents of the linguist.

And it is a fallacy that languages must be learnt in childhood. Adults learn languages readily, given the opportunity and will to do so. And it needn't be a chore: it can be fun. There is bound to be a course to suit your needs.

Learning is a liberating experience: speaking another language opens up a new world. And only companies that adapt to today's changing world will survive and prosper into the next century. Make sure yours is among them.

The writer has been a specialist language trainer to industry for many years.