Most Britons are reluctant to learn foreign languages, largely – thanks to the widespread use of English – because they don’t need to.
But in the brave new world of globalisation, the ability to converse in other languages is increasingly being seen as an advantage.
Government body the National Centre for Languages (CILT) recently ranked the UK bottom of a league table of 28 European countries in terms of language capabilities. It claims this weakness is severely hampering the country’s ability to trade effectively.
Nevertheless, many Britons want to learn another language, and top of the most in-demand languages list, according to the British Council, are: Mandarin – China’s most spoken dialect – Arabic, and Spanish.
Not that it is a matter of mastering one of these languages. Business people travelling to foreign climes don’t have to speak the local patois fluently to make a difference. Much of the corporate language training on the market today concentrates on teaching common phrases, enabling small talk and providing employees with some basic terminology around their job function.
Germaine Broadbent, head of international language school Cactus Language Training, says there are several different types of employees who could benefit from learning a foreign language.
Senior executives and sales people who are forging partnerships in overseas markets can benefit from training in the local language, she says. The ability to swap a few pleasantries with foreign business counterparts in their mother tongue can help earn respect, strengthen relationships and secure trade contracts.
Operational managers who are working with suppliers from overseas can also benefit from language tuition, says Broadbent, as it will enable them to deal more effectively with their foreign business partners.
Cactus also carries out a lot of work for the relocation industry, providing both pre- and post-departure tuition through its network of affiliates, for employees and their families who have been assigned overseas.
For example, someone heading for a posting in Hong Kong may start with a teacher in the UK in Mandarin or Cantonese, and then restart with a trainer overseas when they arrive.
Other sectors Cactus has worked with include charities that send people overseas; the fashion industry where Italian language is predominant; and banking, a global industry whose business language may be English, but “for whom client relationships are often built on the use of different languages”, says Broadbent.
She says the most effective way of teaching people a language they have never tried before is through face-to-face training – groups of up to 12 students are the most cost-effective option and the optimum number for language learning. These sessions cost about £50 an hour.
“Motivation and encouragement from qualified native speaker trainers are the most effective ways to learn a language for lower-level learners,” she says.
A regular one-and-half-hour lesson a week is the basic amount of tuition necessary to start getting a grasp of common verbs and expressions.
Broadbent says early mornings are the most effective times to learn languages. If work commitments don’t allow this, an extended lunch break or courses that use a combination of work time and free time after work are other possibilities.
But, says James Pittman, managing director at language e-learning provider Rosetta Stone, for some businesses, organised language learning sessions can be disruptive. Companies such as airlines, that have a need for their staff to be multi-lingual, will find it virtually impossible to get their employees together regularly at the same time in the same place.
Rosetta Stone has worked with companies such as Shell, BMW and KPMG, and has provided Pashto language training to British Army forces heading for Afghanistan. Its approach to language learning is based on online or CD-Rom modules that enable individuals to practice in their own time.
Pittman says the use of voice recognition software in ‘listen and repeat’ exercises, images and text, means the modules are “fully immersive” and allow people to learn languages in “a non-threatening environment.”
Level 1 of Stone’s course costs £139 per individual for up to 30 hours of tuition.
Much less expensive at £14.99 are the language learning CDs produced by Earworms, a software company that takes an innovative approach to learning. The venture is the brainchild of creative director Marlon Lodge, who combines his own music with elementary language education to help ensure learners remember key phrases.
“An earworm is a song that gets stuck in your head and because catchy tunes are easier to remember than words, it’s a great way to learn a language – think of Frere Jacques, for example,” he says.
The technique has already been a hit with consumers – Earworms’ Spanish offering being a top five download on the iTunes website – and more recently, has been adopted by businesses.
The National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, for example, is using Earworms CDs to train its staff.
Demand for English
But despite this emphasis on learning foreign languages, English is still very much in demand worldwide, and if you are a training manager in a multinational organisation, you may be asked to arrange lessons in English for a colleague from overseas.
A potential port of call could be the London School of English. Formed in 1912, it claims to be the oldest accredited language institute in the world.
Alongside the tuition of private students, the school offers intensive one- to six-week courses in small groups at two London locations. Popular courses include English for International Business and Communicating Effectively in English, as well as classes designed to impart specific legal, financial and HR jargon.
“The majority of our pupils come from abroad and go home again,” says London School of English managing director Timothy Blake. “But we do teach employees from overseas who have arrived in the UK on secondment.”
According to Blake, English remains the “lingua-franca of the world,” either for business people operating in a global context, or within large international organisations, where it is the common language used by all nationalities.
And with so many people now speaking English throughout the world, the way it is being used is changing, says Blake. The emphasis now is on ease of communication, rather than over-complicated English idioms.
For this reason, London School of English also runs a course aimed at making English speakers aware of how they can make themselves better understood by non-native speakers. For example, if a meeting has been delayed, to use the words ‘put off’, will be far harder to understand than ‘postpone’.
“We need to learn to modify our English, so that someone who speaks it fairly well can understand us. After all the work they have done, it’s the least we can do,” says Blake.
by Ross Bentley
Case study: Paxton Access
When Joe McGavin and Paul Rawlinson, senior managers at Brighton-based access control firm Paxton Access, first travelled to China on business, they found their inability to speak Mandarin held them back.
“We couldn’t speak the language and all communication was done through our host,” says McGavin.
They approached Cactus Language Training, which set up an initial 20 hours of training, delivered in weekly one-and-half hour early morning sessions at their office.
“We now have a good grasp of the Chinese language and culture, and a subsequent visit has proven that with a small amount of language, almost every scenario becomes easier and more interactive, improving relations and, importantly, increasing trust,” says McGavin.
“We’re looking forward to continuing our training and making our future visits to China more interesting, productive and, ultimately, more profitable.”
Case study: Swisscom
The head of HR at Swisscom, a provider of telecoms and internet services throughout Europe, has travelled to London to take several courses with the London School of English.
The most recent was a two-week programme combining a one-week business English course with a week on the school’s specialist HR managers’ course.
According to London School of English managing director, Timothy Blake, the group business English course offered interaction with managers from a range of nationalities and an opportunity to develop language skills in practical and realistic business situations.
The HR course included work on the language of recruitment, unfair dismissal, presentations and employment law, followed by a visit to an employment tribunal.
“This client takes lessons on a regular basis in his company in Switzerland, and the combination of regular learning with occasional intensive courses is particularly effective,” says Blake.