BRITAIN is a multi-cultural society. We are one of the world's most successful exporters into world markets, and we attract more inward investment than any other country in Europe. We also draw huge numbers of overseas visitors for our tourist industry. And many firms in Britain have overseas subsidiaries, or are subsidiaries or partners of overseas firms, or are part of multi- national companies. Few countries have better international credentials - or a greater need to communicate with others.
Yet we are notorious for our inability to communicate in any language other than our own. Does this matter? A language may be helpful on overseas holidays, but is it vocationally valuable?
English is one of the world's most widely used languages, so it is easy to suppose it is understood universally. Although it is the mother tongue of 300 million people worldwide, and is spoken as a second or foreign language by 400 million more, only one in eight of the world's population speaks any English. Most English speakers are in the UK, North America, Africa and the Indian sub-continent. However, the world's richest economies outside North America, as well as those with the greatest prospect of growth, are now virtually all non-English speaking. We need to be able to communicate with people in the European Union and the so-called tiger economies of the Far East, as well as in eastern Europe and South Africa. Several studies show how our business is hampered by poor language skills. The largest was a study of 2,000 companies carried out for the Department of Employment by the Institute for Employment Studies. This found that 60 per cent of firms conduct business with foreign-speaking clients, and that 23 per cent say that lack of a particular language is a barrier to business in certain countries. The study found particularly acute problems with French, German and Spanish companies and with contacts from eastern Europe and China. All those firms which regularly did overseas business reported that some of their staff needed to improve their foreign language skills. A survey of small- and medium-sized businesses by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching (CILT) also found that one-third of UK exporters miss out on trade opportunities because of poor language skills. One might think that employers, having admitted they lose business opportunities, want to ensure that they have adequate language skills in-house. However, this does not appear to be reflected in their recruitment and training. Training Trends 12, an Industrial Society survey, reported that foreign languages and international competitiveness were the topics with the least priority for training of senior managers - ranking 13th and 14th in importance. Last year, research by Chartered Accountants Grant Thornton for their annual European Business Survey found that only 38 per cent of British companies employing up to 500 people have an executive able to negotiate in another language. …