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.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt