“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen”, Willy Brandt (former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s). With the cost of poor language skills estimated to cost the UK £48bn ($70bn) per year why are companies and the government not doing more to develop the linguistic ability of the British workforce?
Language skills development: The missing piece from your organisation’s strategy?
So you want to grow your business? Your local market is stagnant and so your only option is to grow internationally. What’s next? You convene strategy meetings, hire external consultants, work up a plan and hold town hall meetings to present your new strategy.
It’s all looking great – but haven’t you missed something? International expansion means working with and selling to international customers? What experience do you have here? Are your staff prepared? Have you thought about the communication challenges you will face? Does anyone even speak French, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese or whatever the language is of the new market you are entering?
Is a language strategy to develop the language skills of your workforce missing from your new expansion plan?
A report published by The Guardian explored this problem and reported that poor language skills costs the UK economy 3.5% of GDP or in plain English £44bn ($70bn) per year.
So what are the costs and benefits of developing foreign language skills?
If your business wishes to sell abroad, then your chances of success may be severely limited by your lack of ability to speak that market’s language
Many organisations may have an ‘everybody speaks English’ mindset. As the Guardian article points out, this may be a way some foreign businesses reluctantly operate when dealing with a mono linguistic buyer, e.g. the UK! But if your business wishes to sell abroad, you may be limiting your chances of success by not speaking that market’s language.
You may only be scratching the surface of the total available market due to limited language synergy. You may not even be completely aware of the opportunities you are missing.
The close link between language and culture
Successful international business is almost impossible if neither party has the language skills to be able to converse fully with the other
Foreign language skills also improve an organisation’s ability to understand foreign markets buying motivations. This information is critical if your product or service needs modification in order to appeal to the new market. It also helps organisations understand what to do when/if they meet resistance due to cultural sensitivities or misunderstandings.
Foreign language skills also help to build important business relationships, which are important in many countries that prefer to work with people they know, like and trust. This is nearly impossible to do if neither party has the language skills to be able to converse fully with the other.
What hope for British workers?
Organisations will choose multilingual international staff over “native” monolingual ones
The final challenge for UK business is finding UK-based employees with the language skills needed for their target export markets. Although there are many bilingual and multilingual people residing in the UK, many of them are foreign workers from the EU and beyond. Is this pool sufficiently large enough to serve the internal demand?
If more British employees remain mono-linguistic, their future employment opportunities may well be limited. Organisations may also find it limiting to hire them as well, especially in their biggest growth markets abroad. Assuming that ‘everybody speaks English’ is an attitude that few UK businesses can continue to afford to adopt.
The numbers don’t lie. Companies should invest more in the language skills of their workforce to see their profits increase.