Never mind the language, what about literacy?

Scarcely a day passes without reports of people rushing to learn Mandarin Chinese. That’s all well and good, but the real language learning issues are much closer to home.

Much is being made of the need to learn Chinese for the greater good of the UK economy. Almost 4,000 pupils will take Mandarin GCSE this summer – up 50% on those who sat it five years ago. Frankly, I doubt if this rush of folk anxious to immerse themselves in the 4,000-plus characters of Mandarin will make much difference to UK industry and commerce.

Anglo-Chinese trade is booming despite the notorious inability of Britons to speak any language other than English. It is based on the ability and willingness of zillions of Chinese workers to produce saleable goods at extremely low wages. No UK company deals with China because its chairman likes speaking Mandarin.

In any case, if UK organisations need fluent speakers in Mandarin and English, there are tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants in this country who will happily oblige.

A more pressing problem for many in learning and development is the standard of formal English displayed by many employees. What’s the scale of this issue

If you believe the popular press, about 16 million adults in the UK have literacy problems. Well, we all have when faced with official documents, so that figure can be filed under ‘plucked out of the air’.

More reliably, Learn Direct estimates there are seven million people in the UK who are illiterate inasmuch as they have great difficulty in reading and writing everyday material, such as timetables. But that need be no bar to success, as proved by many professional footballers.

The core literacy issue for companies is that of grammar and spelling. Anecdotal evidence, such as Bradford University giving students lists of proof readers and John Prescott’s squeeze Tracey Temple spelling busy as bizzi, indicates this problem is growing. I’ve met many people who say they were not taught grammar at school and need to learn it in the workplace.

The boss of media training company PMA, which last month ran a roadshow in several university towns, including Cambridge, told me standards of grammar and spelling displayed by students “are depressingly low”. And these are students who want to pursue a media career.

How should employers deal with poor grammar and spelling? Apart from putting on remedial training, they ought to consider setting up libraries. These could take the form of borrowing shelves or book clubs.

A TUC survey earlier this year found only 23% of UK workplaces provide books, but that 91.4% of the 1,423 workers surveyed said they would borrow books if their workplace set up a library-type facility. Unfortunately, they weren’t asked if they would return them.

Toilet training

A company called Management Centre Europe has recently bombarded me, and presumably many other luckless souls, with an e-mail claiming that organisations spend more on toilet paper than on “externally sourced management development”. What the significance of this comparison is the Lord only knows, but one thing’s for sure: toilet paper brings clear and measurable benefits to the bottom line. Can the same be said of externally-sourced management development?

John Charlton, editor and training manager

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