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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

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 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser