English speakers: don't get too comfortable

Why foreign languages matter in business.

We English-speaking folk have it easy – no matter where we travel or what international relations we may have, there is always someone on the other end who saves us from fumbling and responds in English. While we often indulge in the dominance of English as an international lingua franca, the need to speak a foreign language has never been more critical to our economy or our own job security.

Don’t get too cosy

The prominence of English in the global market can be overstated. According to research from the National Centre for Languages, CILT (2010), only 6-8 per cent of the world’s population speaks English as a first language, and 12 per cent as a second language. And while employers rank IT skills as the most attractive attribute amongst prospective candidates, foreign language knowledge comes in second. Furthermore, 43 per cent of recruiters say speaking a second language gives a jobseeker the “X-factor” (CILT). Having multilingual employees is important in allowing companies to expand internationally and compete against firms in countries like Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, and China where multilingual and highly skilled workers are increasing in number . Linguists currently play a major role in the transfer of knowledge globally. But we need to make sure that this works in all directions and all languages. More and more, we need our businesses to mirror the global population we’re dealing with. The benefits to a company with a multilingual staff are countless: from something as simple as saving in the cost of translations to being able to search the web more efficiently (in 1996 75 per cent of the web was in English, today this is reversed to 75 per cent in other languages according to Global Vibration Inc), to simply wanting to show respect to the people with whom we have business and social interactions.

According to the latest education and skills survey (2011) from the CBI, a top UK business lobbying association, only a quarter of businesses have absolutely no need for foreign language skills in their company. The survey also stressed that ‘operating effectively in a global economy relies on the right language skills.’ This is especially true of export businesses, on which the UK’s economy depends. There is a clear correlation between sales and a value on language skills, with over 60 per cent of non-exporters considering the lack of language skills as a barrier.

Yet despite all of this the CfBT Education Trust reported in 2011 that instead of responding to this change and preparing for the challenge of a global, social-media infused society, there is instead a downward trend in numbers of students taking a GCSE in a language with a decline to 40 per cent in 2011 from 78 per cent in 2001.

Get talking

While the recent change in our national curriculum which makes foreign languages compulsory from age seven, will help prepare future “global natives”, what do we do in the meantime? As someone whose professional life is dedicated to researching language acquisition and creating language learning materials, it’s clear to me that the best way to approach learning a new language is to just dive in head first and start talking. Ideally, this would be by spending time in a foreign country by doing a secondment or a company transfer. But realistically, we all have so little time that most of us will have to rely on self-study language courses.

The key to success is to immerse yourself in the language and get over the initial hump by starting to listen to the language and speak it immediately. Once you start to hear yourself utter fancy foreign words and see how easy it can be, taking the next step becomes easier.

Sarah Cole is the Editorial Director of Consumer Education and Languages at Hodder Education. Hodder Education has just launched a ‘Get Talking’ language series.

Back to school for business people. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Cole is the Editorial Director of Consumer Education and Languages at Hodder Education.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.