Magazine article Management Today

Why Lucas Has Seen the Light on Language Learning

Magazine article Management Today

Why Lucas Has Seen the Light on Language Learning

Article excerpt

Governments can solemnly confer, bureaucrats can attempt to impose common standards, bankers can unify currencies and trading practices until they are blue in the face, but |Europe' will still remain a fragile and artificial concept until its 350 million people are willing to think of themselves, and each other, as all truly |European'. It has taken a long time, but at last there are signs, even in these parochial offshore islands, that the process has at last begun.

Lucas Industries is the 276th largest company in Europe and only ranks 110th even here in Britain. But it is one of the first to start seeing its future as fundamentally international, and systematically to pursue that perception at all levels.

The change can be seen most basically -- and strikingly -- in the corporate attitude to foreign languages. Five years ago, Lucas, like most UK institutions, looked on linguistic ability as a bit of luxury: occasionally useful in the export department, or when the chairman had to entertain important visitors, but certainly not central to anyone's career advancement.

All that has now changed. Eighteen months ago Lucas began to include language-learning in the Continuing Education & Training Programme which is open to all its 57,000-strong workforce, and the response has been remarkable. The opportunity has been avidly seized everywhere it is on offer, and in the Automotive Electronics division, where the idea was pioneered, almost one in four of the staff are currently committed to extending their communicative skills.

Each day, usually straight after work, groups of senior managers, secretaries and shopfloor people drop their hierarchical distinctions and get together for an intensive hour of conversational French or advanced technical Spanish and German. The firm pays all the course costs, plus books and video hire, and the employees are required only to volunteer their own time. So far, the drop-out rate has been minimal and many have already successfully negotiated their first London Chamber of Commerce exams. Ten dedicated individuals have embarked on Japanese (though so far only spoken, not the more difficult written variety).

The courses are organised, either on site or in college, by Birmingham's city-funded Brasshouse Language Centre, whose spectacular growth is itself a strong indication of the way the West Midlands is expanding its horizons. Although the area knows it will soon be exposed to tough new competition, with specialities like engineering and ceramics particularly under threat, the general attitude is that the single market is to be treated as a stimulating, but sustainable challenge. If that means speaking the way they do beyond the Channel, so be it, and the Brasshouse registration figures, after five years of steady increase, jumped by a further 43% last September. No fewer than 3,500 pupils a week are now regularly attending, and the number of specifically business-related classes has doubled.

It would be quite wrong to see this in terms of dusty classrooms and lists of irregular verbs. Brasshouse, under its highly entrepreneurial principal, John Langran, is a vibrant and imaginative affair. To accommodate its inflated intake it has had to colonise a neighbouring mosque, a synagogue and, for a short period, a spare double-decker bus. But however strained its resources, it continues to offer a daunting range of language services, from basic translation and interpretation up to crash courses specially tailored for the sales team that is suddenly called up to discuss numerically-controlled machine tools in fluent Portuguese. …

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