The language of business

Let’s face it, most Britons’ foreign language skills lie south of abysmal, with many of us struggling with even the basics when we go on holiday. Yet English continues to be the commercial lingua franca as organisations globalise, so the business case for employees to learn a foreign tongue is increasingly compelling.

According to the Centre for Information on Language Training and Research – a government body that promotes language learning – the failure of most Britons to learn foreign languages has a direct impact on the country’s trading performance.

Its most recent report found that although 72% of British trade was with non-English speaking countries, one in five exporting companies was losing trade because of language barriers.

The most in-demand languages, according to the British Council, are: Mandarin (China’s most widely spoken dialect), Arabic and Spanish (the dominant language in South and Central America). These are all parts of the world where the UK wants to make major commercial in-roads, yet suffers because of poor foreign language skills.

In fact, according to the CBI, the UK does as much business with Denmark as it does with the whole of South America.

“Our reluctance to learn foreign languages is holding us back and distorting our trade,” says Peter Walser, an inspection manager at the Adult Learning Inspectorate. “We tend to only go into markets where we can tap into the people’s ability to speak English.”

This does not mean key staff must become fluent in a foreign language to enhance their employer’s chances of striking major deals in some far-flung corner of the globe.

Basic communication skills

The majority of corporate language training companies agree the most important accomplishment is being able to communicate at a basic level, and they focus their programmes on teaching common phrases and basic terminology around job functions.

Germaine Broadbent, head of international language school Cactus Language Training, says that a wide range of employees would benefit from learning a foreign language to this level.

Senior executives and sales people who are forging partnerships in overseas markets are prime candidates, she says.

“Client relationships are often built on the use of different languages,” says Broadbent. “The ability to extend a few courtesies to 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 and employees relocating to foreign climes can also benefit.

Cactus’s preferred method of tuition is face-to-face in small groups, but, says James Pittman, managing director of language e­‑learning provider Rosetta Stone, some businesses find it difficult to get their employees together regularly at the same time in the same place. For this reason, his company, which has worked with several others, including Shell and BMW, approaches language learning through online or CD-Rom modules that use voice recognition software in listen-and-repeat exercises.

This, says Pittman, enables individuals to practise in their own time.

Tuned in to learning

Another aid to language training has been developed by technology company Earworms, which combines ambient music with elementary language education to help students to capture and remember phrases.

“An earworm is a song that gets stuck in your head and, because catchy tunes are easier to remember, it’s a great way to learn a language – think of Frère Jacques, for example,” says creative director Marlon Lodge.

The technique has already been a hit with consumers, and Earworms’ Spanish offering is a top five download on the iTunes website, while companies such as the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham use Earworms CDs to train relevant staff.

For training managers and heads of HR who are keen to justify language training in terms of return on investment, most commentators agree it is difficult to pin down exactly the value new language skills bring to an organisation.

Pittman suggests companies apply employee questionnaires and conduct user-group sessions to get feedback. Or, over time, track an employee’s performance as their language ability improves.

At the London School of English, managing director Timothy Blake says language learning is about promoting good communication. He adds that companies must also consider what they are missing out on by not investing in this area.

“Someone without good communication skills can do a great deal of harm in terms of lost opportunities, the alienation of customers and a failure to motivate international staff,” he says.

What are your language learning needs?

UK Trade and Investment, a government organisation set up to help UK companies do business abroad, has found that companies needing language skills usually look to one of these five possible solutions:



  • Hiring a translator or interpreter

  • Taking foreign students on placement

  • Offering their staff language learning

  • Recruiting new staff with language skills

  • Installing new types of technology (such as computer translation tools).

If your organisation is interested in investing in language training, UK Trade and Investment subsidises an Export Communications Review service, which is offered by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

The BCC will send in a consultant to review your communication needs and make recommendations about the most cost-effective ways of handling language issues.

For more information, contact the BCC in Coventry on 0247 669 4484.

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