A survey carried out by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) raised alarm bells at the lack of foreign language skills of school leavers and university graduates. The CBI found that the lack of language skills of UK employees is costing UK PLC billions of pounds each year.
The survey, of more than 300 British businesses, found that more than two-thirds of businesses preferred employees with foreign language skills. French, German and Spanish continue to dominate the wish list with Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese also growing in importance.
While the survey found businesses seek to hire employees with foreign language skills, the UK education system is failing miserably to meet this demand.
Why Are the British So Bad at Languages?
The British are notoriously monolingual. While speaking the world’s lingua franca does not help, policy makers and the education system are also to blame. Foreign language learning has never really been taken seriously in the UK.
The previous Labour government made language learning optional in the UK (subsequently overturned by the Conservative-Liberal coalition). More recently, universities are now closing language departments across the country due to lack of demand and funding. Languages are not seen as a priority area by learners or educators.
Which Language to Learn?
There is an old business saying: if you’re buying, I’ll speak your language; if you’re selling, you speak mine
While every other nationality has an easy choice of which second language to learn (English), what languages should the British learn? The languages we learn at school or university are not necessarily the languages businesses need.
We learn French and German at school, but go on holiday to Spain or Greece, so even those who do learn a language have little opportunity to use it. In addition to western European languages such as French, German and Spanish, businesses need Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian.
Global businesses need globally competent business people – foreign languages are an essential part of this executive toolkit. The Chinese and others have learned this important lesson: European universities are full of future Chinese business leaders who are learning business skills in parallel to English.
How many English speakers go to Germany or Brazil to study business in a different language and gain an important immersion in a new culture?
Business Needs to Play its Part
The highest growth markets are not English speaking, and those organisations that invest in developing in-house language skills are the ones best placed to take advantage: reduced costs, greater team collaboration, better customer service, and quicker responses are just some of the benefits.
There is an old business saying: if you’re buying, I’ll speak your language; if you’re selling, you speak mine. Britain needs to sell more and to export more to grow our economy: we haven’t learned this important lesson yet.
Global businesses need globally competent business people – foreign languages are an essential part of this executive toolkit
Business and Government Together
The government should involve business in the design of school and university curricula to ensure that the languages we are teaching are the ones we need and are at the level we need. However, businesses also need to invest in up-skilling staff at all levels so that having a second language is the norm and not a very rare exception.