Is your business making the most of the potential global audience for your product or service? Are you looking to break into international markets or expand on your existing presence? Could you benefit from getting to know your foreign customers better?
Evidence identified by the British Academy’s ‘Languages: State of the Nation’ report last year shows the UK is suffering from “a growing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when global demand for language skills is expanding”. The organisers of the 2013 ‘Language Festival’ - held in partnership with The Guardian – have suggested that the UK “is at a crucial crossroads”, and also found that…
• The range and nature of languages being taught is insufficient to meet current and future demand.
• Language skills are needed at all levels in the workforce, and not simply by an internationally mobile elite.
• A weak supply of language skills is pushing down demand and creating a vicious circle of monolingualism.
Comparisons of recent National Employer Skills Surveys indicate that 17% (2009) and 27% (2011) of vacancies in administrative and clerical roles went unfilled due to shortages of foreign language skills. Employers tend to obscure these deficits in the UK workforce by hiring native speakers, eliminating language requirements from job adverts, or focusing their business strategy solely on regions where English is the dominant language.
The 2012 CBI Employer survey, based on responses from 542 companies, found that nearly three quarters of UK private sector employers see a need for – or at least a benefit in having – foreign language skills in their business. However, low levels of uptake are a cause for concern. In England, the proportion of students sitting GCSEs in a foreign language fell from 78% in 2001 to just 43% in 2011 in the wake of the decision, in 2004, to make languages optional.
Employers value not only language skills per se, but the inherent skills and attributes – in particular the international and cultural awareness – that speaking a foreign language brings. Evidence linking language skills to better business performance and the ability to access new markets is strong. Employers have made clear that they want to see more people come into the workforce with at least a basic knowledge of foreign languages, along with a more globally-attuned mindset.
39% of the UK adult population claim to be able to speak at least one language, besides their mother tongue, well enough to have a conversation. This compares to an average of 54% across 27 European countries. Currently a large proportion of the explicit demand for language skills – around half – is for the major western European languages most frequently taught within UK schools: French, German and Spanish. Indications of future demand show that a growing number of languages will be needed as the UK expands its global connections and responds to new economic realities.
These include not only world languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and Russian – but also Turkish, Farsi and Polish. Without a system of language provision that can respond to the speed of globalisation, communication and mobility between people and places, we are already at a disadvantage.
Language learning spans a vast range of areas such as business, cultural and community interaction and helps foster understanding in an increasingly globalised world. ‘Wirral Multilingual’ was established in late 2012, with the aim of raising awareness locally (in the North West of England) about language learning and demonstrating the benefits for both individuals and businesses.
What significance does this have to such a small geographical area such as the Wirral (population circa 320,000), you may ask? Events taking place in 2014, such as ‘The Open Championship’ in Hoylake and the ‘International Festival for Business’ just across the River Mersey in Liverpool will see visitors to the area from across the globe, providing local businesses with unrivalled opportunities to build international connections and commercial value, due to their international reach and significance.
Given the wide range (and sheer number) of people attending such events, it is vitally important that employees of Wirral businesses have the skills to communicate effectively with customers from different cultures and backgrounds. I believe this understanding is key to delivering a successful customer service experience and ultimately repeat business. If there exists a language barrier or cultural differences, it can be an awkward experience for staff and customers alike.
As the Swiss linguist and semiotician Saussure so eloquently put into words: "In the lives of individuals and societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs". Thanks for reading; I would like to leave you with a selection of useful business tips when dealing with other cultures…
• In Japan, the receiving and giving of business cards is taken very seriously, so don’t just stick them in your pocket or drop them on the table!
• In Russia, avoid jokes. The British sense of humour isn’t always understood or appreciated and can fall flat, causing embarrassment all round.
• In Dubai, don’t arrange meetings on Fridays, as this is the Muslim day of prayer and rest.
 Source: “Languages – State of the Nation” (British Academy, February 2013)
Do you speak one or more foreign languages, either privately or professionally? Evidence suggests that if the answer is no, then you could be missing out...
A recent survey of senior managers found that 61% believe not knowing the local language is the biggest obstacle in the way of successfully conducting business negotiations abroad, yet only 37% of those questioned said their company actually offered language training to their employees. There is an image of Brits abroad - and amongst our European neighbours in particular - that we are reluctant language learners, and assume we can easily get by simply speaking English wherever we go.
Unfortunately, it seems that this rather negative stereotype is backed up by the facts... Traditional A-level disciplines such as French and German are in “freefall”, following a record decline in entry rates over the last decade. According to the most recent official figures, currently about one in ten state primary schools offers no language lessons at all, and a further 20% only offer it to some year groups.
The Government has taken heed of this alarming drop in language teaching - particularly noticeable at secondary school level - and has moved to make languages a requirement from age seven, as part of a new primary National Curriculum taking effect in 2014. More than half of pupils taking GCSEs in 2013 will be doing a language, compared to 43% in 2010. "Learning another language is good for young children and it will give them more options in education and work [in later life]" said Michael Gove (Education Secretary) in June.
I have always enjoyed learning and speaking other languages, and it has certainly opened up my eyes to the rich tapestry of cultures around the world. I would encourage everybody to learn at least one foreign language, from the earliest possible age. But it is also never too late to start! It has been proven that countries with high-performing education systems begin teaching foreign languages at a much younger age than in England. New Zealand and Singapore teach languages from age six, and Finland at age nine. In Hong Kong, English is compulsory from the start of primary school.
The aim of 'Wirral Multilingual' is to enable Wirral residents to learn a new language, improve their current language skills, or meet and chat with other nationalities. The service also provides Wirral-based companies with access to professional translation/interpreting services, a source of multilingual staff, and the tools to expand their business operations across Europe and beyond. For more information, please make do not hesitate to get in touch via the Contact page.
 Source: "Lack of language skills is biggest obstacle for expats" (The Telegraph 31.08.12)
 Source: “Foreign languages 'need Eurozone-style bail-out’" (The Telegraph 16.08.12)
 Source: "Foreign languages to be compulsory from age seven" (The Telegraph, 09.06.12)
Stuart Burke founded Wirral Multilingual in 2012, with the aim to promote the use and understanding of foreign languages and cultures among those living and working in the Wirral. His background is in export markets (predominantly Europe). He speaks French and German fluently, but also enjoys the challenge of trying other languages. So far, he knows the basics of several European languages and can count from one to ten in Japanese!