But they all speak English, don’t they?”
This is the most frequent excuse we in Britain use for not learning foreign languages, whether we are tourists in Spain or representing a business trying to exploit the German market. To a large extent, it is true that many more people in Europe speak and understand English than speak and understand, for example, Czech. With several universities dramatically cutting the provision of language courses, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate the value of foreign language training to SMEs (small-to-medium-sized businesses) in Britain, especially when 11% of UK SMEs claimed they had lost a significant contract owing to a lack of language skills…
To start the ball rolling, and to make my position clear, I quote the Summer 2009 edition of Springboard, the official journal of UK Trade and Investment, the British Government’s organisation for promoting British business worldwide.

“Improving language skills could add up to £21 billion per year to the UK economy.”

“ … businesses that are proactive in their use of foreign languages achieve, on average, 45% more export sales.”

It is clear that, at a time when it is becoming difficult to learn a foreign language at university, with no compulsory language teaching in schools, it is more and more important that British SMEs, in particular, invest in the future by training staff in relevant foreign language use.

In 2006 a report was released, sponsored by the EU, into the effects of language skills on the economy of Europe. The ELAN project, led by Professor Stephen Hagen, thoroughly researched language use in relation to won and lost contracts by SMEs, starting from the premises that small companies are less efficient than larger companies, and that exporting brings hidden and unquantifiable benefits, such as increased technical knowledge, cost savings and more efficient processes.

This report surveyed 2,000 SMEs – 11% of which claimed that they had lost a significant contract owing to a lack of language skills. While exact figures were hard to discover, those who indicated a value of the contract suggested that £33 million worth of contracts were lost in 2005/6 because of lack of language skills – and this survey only looked at SMEs, although one of the side effects of the research was to conclude that, among larger companies, “… demand for skills in languages other than English was greater than the demand for English itself.” (ELAN Project, 2006.)

This suggests that our European partners are negotiating in the languages of their markets, and not, as we British have assumed, using English as a lingua franca; indeed, the main final conclusion of the report was that an SME that was prepared to invest the time and money in developing a language strategy and encouraging language skills could expect to maintain a 44% higher export proportion than a comparable organisation without such a strategy. The UK was found to have the lowest percentage of companies prepared to offer staff language training. 90% of Czech companies, 76% of Austrian and 70% of Swedish offered staff language training on a regular basis, while the UK was second from bottom with 10%. (ELAN Project, 2006.)

This ELAN report confirms the findings of a survey in 2004 by the British Chambers of Commerce, which discovered a specific link between the importance an export manager placed on using local language skills in business and annual turnover. Those who spent time and energy learning the language were much more likely to sustain export success and negotiate longer-term export contracts. (British Chambers of Commerce, 2003, 2004.)

One surprising finding of both the ELAN study and the British Chambers of Commerce report was that, despite the role of English online, other languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese, are becoming comparatively more important, owing to the economic importance of the so-called BRIC countries. (ELAN Project, 2006.)

SMEs are more vulnerable in times of economic difficulty because there is far less room to make cost savings, and so the surest way of ensuring survival is to capitalise on existing opportunities and maximise growth. A company with a product for export can make the most of its export opportunities by implementing a comprehensive programme of language training which encompasses all levels of the business; there is no point having a fluent French speaker in sales if the receptionist cannot direct a French-speaking caller to the correct person because of a lack of language skills.

A quick word on ways of learning languages:  without doubt, the most effective and long-lasting way to learn a foreign language is to start as an infant embedded in the native atmosphere of the language, attending school and conversing with peers in the “foreign” language. No less true is the fact that this is not an option for most SMEs beyond a certain element of luck in recruitment.

Albert Menut, in a research piece for the US Army Language School, advocated immersion/intensive courses (Menut, 1953):  these offer a compromise solution which satisfies our impatience and desire for instant results by combining efficiency of time and effort with a close reproduction of the way infants learn their first language, through repetition and simple explanations embedded in the language itself, rarely reverting to the native language. So-called ‘drip-feed’ language programmes rarely succeed, especially in business. An hour a week, or even two, is given too low a priority, and the time between lessons is too long to ensure that the second language can ever become part of the consciousness of the individual and thereby encourage fluent use.

(Originally published at http://bit.ly/3gVBJ Relocate Magazine)


British Chambers of Commerce. (2003, 2004). The Impact of Foreign Languages on British Business. LSC

ELAN Project. (2006). Effects on the European Union Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise

Menut, A. D. (1953). Language Courses: Content and Techniques. The Modern Language Journal, 37 (4), 189–194

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