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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder