Global organisations are placing increasing value on foreign language competency among their existing employee populations and new hires. Why? To enhance internal communication between employees and teams as well as external communication with customers, suppliers and the diverse communities in which they operate. Willy Brandt (the former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s) famously said “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (you must speak German).
Organisations that do not employ staff with foreign languages or develop existing staff risk being left at a disadvantage in an increasingly global market.
The Importance of Foreign Languages
It is easy to assume that the world speaks English. Although English is the official language of most international organisations, it is a dangerous assumption that you don’t need to speak the local language.
It is a dangerous assumption that you don’t need to speak the local language
Times also change. Britain exported the English language to most of the world along with the goods it traded in the 19th Century. But the 21st Century is a very different place.
As Britain leaves Europe, it will have to find a new way to develop trade relationships with its European neighbours. It must also negotiate new relationships with all its markets, where previously EU collective agreements were in place.
The Top 5 Foreign Languages Required By British Employers
According to an article highlighted by Statista, the top 5 foreign languages currently demanded by British business are:
4. Mandarin Chinese
The majority of these languages reflect the current reality of the European Union as Britain’s largest trading partner. Mandarin Chinese represents the country with the world’s second largest economy by GDP. Arabic represents one of the fastest-growing markets in the world.
Many organisations use the vast talent pool of EU citizens to fill the foreign language gap
Many British universities are cutting language programmes; the school system has never been strong in providing children with a strong foundation in foreign languages. Britain has not produced graduates able to conduct business in more than one language.
Instead, many organisations use the vast talent pool of EU citizens to fill the foreign language gap. But with Brexit looming, and with the uncertainty about European Union citizens’ right to remain in the UK post-Brexit still unresolved, is the UK about to score a linguistic own goal? Limiting markets to those that speak English would be a catastrophic mistake.
As Willy Brandt, the former German Chancellor said, “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. But if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”
The starting point must be for organisations to build a foundation in French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Polish to keep up with the current need for foreign languages.
What About The Languages of The Future?
The British Council has identified the 10 most important foreign languages to learn for the future. They have been identified by market growth, future potential trading partners, and even the patterns of language growth on the internet.
- Mandarin Chinese
Most of these languages give access to more than one market. For example, a Spanish speaker can work throughout most of the Americas; not only South and Central American countries, but also the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the fast-growing, lucrative Hispanophone markets of North America that are often overlooked in the English speaking world.
Although the elite in the Arab world are very likely to speak English and possibly French, the most populous markets in the Middle East and North Africa remain more comfortable speaking their own languages.
This includes Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, and Saudi Arabia, currently the Arab world’s largest market and one ripe for expansion beyond its dependence on petrol dollars.
The most populous markets in the Middle East and North Africa remain more comfortable speaking their own languages
French serves not only France and its overseas territories but also a set of growing, often sophisticated markets in West Africa.
Portuguese is still the language of business in most of Brazil, which has had its recent share of setbacks but remains strong in the long term. It is also useful in parts of southern Africa, including the fast-growing economic climates of Angola and Mozambique.
Although many British businesses may not have given Russian much thought beyond their home countries, Russian serves the CIS states as a common language.
The Internet – a Global Market
English speakers assume that the internet is in English. But research from 2016 shows that:
- 21% of internet users are Chinese speakers
- 8% are Spanish speakers
- 3.5% are Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and Japanese speakers
- 25% of internet users are English speaking
In a world that is digital, organisations cannot afford to ignore 75% of the market.
Research from 2016 shows that 21% of internet users are Chinese speakers
Nothing stays the same. This includes business. Investing in the future means investment in future language proficiency. Economic growth depends on successful foreign trade, and as Britain looks to re-establish itself apart from Europe, British business would do well to heed Willy Brandt’s advice.
Foreign languages are potentially the biggest barrier to British economic success. Relying on the English language is not a successful strategy for the 21st Century.