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English speakers: don't get too comfortable

Why foreign languages matter in business.

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

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.