More Choose to Add a Language Bi-Lingual Skills Can Maximise Trade Deals; A Way with Words: Demand Reflects Trends in Region's Business Tomorrow Is Birmingham's First Learning Day, a Celebration of Foreign Language Learning in the City. Deputy Business Editor Philip Williams Talks to an Expert in Teaching Businessmen to Speak Any Language They Need

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Byline: Philip Williams

Nati Knight says English reluctance to speak foreign languages is breaking down.

She plonked her Spanish passport down on the immigration desk at Gatwick last year and was greeted in Spanish.

'I nearly dropped my bags in surprise. It had happened at the check-in desk on the way out too,' she said. 'That's a first.

'It would be easy to say 'Yes, the English have the most resistance to foreign languages, and it's true up to a point. But when they have a goal and they need the language to achieve it, they do it - but only at the last minute.'

Spanish-born Ms Knight, married to a Brit, should know. She is the head of language services at the department of the Brasshouse Language Centre in Birmingham which specialises in teaching foreign languages to businessmen.

Well, mostly businessmen. Missionaries from the Church Missionary Society college in Selly Oak going abroad to do the business of the Lord, also keep her on her toes.

She has had to find teachers of Igba - a Nigerian language, Tonga from Zimbabwe and Quechua, the Inca language still spoken in rural areas of Peru and Bolivia, to meet their more exotic needs.

But believe it or not, French, followed by German and Spanish - the most commonly taught languages in British schools - remain the most in demand among business types.

'Just because you were taught it, doesn't mean that you learned it,' she says with a smile.

Japanese is in decline but Arabic is up there in the most want-to category.

Ms Knight can draw on the skills of about 120 experts in 26 major in-house languages at Brasshouse before she has to look outside.

She says demand for languages for business entirely reflects trends in the West Midland economy. Some time ago, a government department moved a major call centre into Birmingham. Its inquiry catchment included Wales. She organised Welsh language training for the staff.

'We tend to reflect what is going on in the regional economy, especially what's happening in manufacturing and a lot of it is IT-related.'

Her department deals with about 300 students a year, ranging from the secretary to the chief executive, and has to be flexible.

They may want intensive one-on-one teaching or something more relaxed. They may want lessons at the office or at home or in groups at the centre - even over the phone - and they can be specific about the particular vocabulary they are going to need.

For some, it's just a case of being able to communicate at a simple level in a foreign language - to break the ice with a customer and pass the time of day.

Others want something much more technical with the vocabulary of engineering and IT at the top of their lists. About 46 per cent of those wanting training at the 30-year old Brasshouse Centre, run by Birmingham City Council Education Service, want vocabulary for those two sectors and 60 per cent want something intensive and one-to-one.

'Business people may be reluctant to come and learn a foreign language but they soon recognise its value. The pay-back can be enormous,' says Ms Knight.

There was a time that the development of export business was the mainspring of demand. But no longer.

In the pattern of global trade, cross-border mergers and acquisitions are now major factors.

Brasshouse added Thai to its list last autumn, as more manufacturers began to think about making their goods more cheaply in Asia.

And even call centres are now beginning to be international as companies find it convenient to concentrate services in one centre and train up the skills.

But the traffic isn't all one way. …