Look who’s talking

Vandevelde detonates the debate about foreign language training and gives her
view that it has benefits which you probably haven’t thought of

Eurobarometer survey just out suggests that English is fast becoming the international
language of the European Union. Asked whether everyone in the EU should speak
English, two-thirds of the 16,000 participants said "yes".

survey could not have come at a worse time for those who argue that people in
the UK should do more to acquire foreign language skills. At the end of last
year, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry published its report, Languages: the next
generation, urging the establishment of a national strategy, complete with its
own supremo with direct access to the Cabinet Office.

last month saw the official launch of the European Commission’s project, the
European Year of Languages.

natural response from the monolingual tendency is to say, "Why bother if
everyone else is going to learn English anyway?" – 40 per cent of those
surveyed claimed to be able to use English as a foreign language.

you add the 16 per cent of EU citizens who speak English as their first
language, we’re already over halfway to English being the common language of
the organisation (French and German come next with around one-third of the EU
population being able to speak them).

how strong is the case for the Brits to get off their bottom position in the
European language league? The problem with the debate about foreign language
acquisition is that it hasn’t been a debate at all.

had a serial procession of worthy reports about the importance of language
learning since the 1960s. They all warn of the job losses that will arise
because we can’t speak the languages of our customers. And here we are in 2001,
still unable to unveil the first person to be made redundant because they
couldn’t speak German or Spanish.

one ever puts forward the case that we shouldn’t learn languages. Why should
they? Who would ever come up with a campaign slogan that goes, "Let’s just
not bother"?

consequence of the absence of debate is that the case in favour of languages is
seen as special pleading on the part of vested interests like commercial
language trainers. So, how strong is the case against language training for

fact, there’s a lot to be said against language learning in terms of its
opportunity cost. It takes a long time to learn. It’s expensive. And unlike for
those in all the other EU countries, except Ireland, there isn’t an obvious
foreign language to learn.

the long lead times that are the biggest problem for UK plc. If you want to
expand into Portugal or Greece, you can’t afford to hang around until your
staff know how to ask for a business card in the relevant foreign language. And
what if your staff start to learn German but economic conditions require you to
switch to Spain? You’ll never see morale plummet so fast.

to that the specialist language services available to companies seeking to
expand into new markets, and the coffin lid for languages looks firmly screwed

bother training your staff when you can access multilingual call centres,
specialist translation and interpretation services, not to mention targeted
promotional campaigns with in-depth knowledge of the culture and expectations
of the target market? If you’re still keen to pursue an in-house solution, the
obvious route is to recruit the expertise you need, rather than spending years
developing it.

has the recent development of specialist language services weakened the case
for foreign language acquisition? Paradoxically the answer is "no".

the strength of the argument in favour hasn’t been made by the lobbyists in
reports like Languages: the next generation. What they have missed is the divergence
of interest between the individual and the company. The business case for
language development is marginal other than where there are unusual
combinations of circumstances, such as the need to collaborate closely with
specialists in a minority language area.

the individual, the position can be very different. The need to invest in
long-term employability makes foreign language acquisition attractive,
especially for world languages like Mandarin Chinese and Arabic that have low
exposure in the West.

we’ve seen, the better solution for the company is to recruit for language
skills rather than to train for them. So for the individual, having the right
combination of expertise and language skills can turn them into a piece of hot

this is just where the interests of the company reconnect to those of the
individual. Businesses whose success depends on their ability to attract
talented staff understand that the best way to retain talented staff is to
invest in their employability. So the smart thinking in company training is
around enabling good people to pursue their own career aspirations, including
foreign language acquisition.

are backwash advantages for the company too. Graham Heard, lecturer in
languages and pre-MBA course director at the Cranfield School of Management, is
conscious of the development of cross-cultural communication as a business
norm. He has noticed how often first language English speakers get into
difficulty when communicating with speakers of English as an additional

speakers have to become aware that their complex use of language isn’t going to
be understood by foreigners, even those who seem to speak English well.
Learning a new language yourself helps you to develop that sensitivity."

Orr, professor of French Studies at Exeter University, reinforces the
collateral benefits that arise from language learning. "If you speak
another language, you are sensitive to different things because you’re not
quite a native. And that gives you a flexibility and self-awareness that a
monolingual speaker never develops."

is, then, a strong case to be made for company-sponsored foreign language
acquisition. But the arguments are more subtle than the white noise generated
by the language lobbyists.

training needs to be rescued from the tumbleweed sidings that the lobbyists
have shunted it into. As an option to be pursued within the broader context of
recruitment, retention and motivation strategies, it could have a vibrant

www.cilt.org.uk/ey12001/    helen@workingahead.com


Council of Europe and the European Union have joined forces to implement the EYL,
as the European Year of Languages 2001 is known.

aims of the EYL include:

To increase awareness of Europe’s linguistic heritage and openness to different
languages and cultures as a source of mutual enrichment

Motivating European citizens to develop a degree of communicative ability in a
number of languages, in order to improve active participation in European
democratic processes

Encouraging and supporting language learning for personal development

major instruments to promote plurilingualism developed in the context of the
Modern Languages Project in Strasbourg will be launched:

The Common European Framework of reference – a tool for all those concerned
language coaching

The European Language Portfolio – to a personal record for learners

information on EYL events in the UK, contact the Centre for Information on
Language Teaching and Research 
eyl@cilt.org.uk   or   www.cilt.org.uk/ey12001/

Comments are closed.