Parlez-vous l'Anglais?

The fact that English is spoken so widely leaves us lagging behind in the global skills market

For most people, Lost in Translation is little more than a slightly surreal, disjointed film that marked the beginning of Scarlet Johansson's career. However, for me it is a way of life. Let me explain.

I work as a correspondent for the London bureau of Japan's largest news agency, Kyodo News. I cannot speak Japanese and I have never set foot in Japan. Even after two years in the post, the cultural differences - of the variety that thrust Johansson and Bill Murray together - still astound me on a daily basis.

I write for the English language service, so having a written fluency in Japanese would not dramatically change my role. However, as one of just two English faces in an office of Japanese people, it is bizarre that having the ability to speak business-level Japanese, conversational Japanese, or even to say "hello" in Japanese was not a prerequisite for the job.

The definition of "translation" refers to expressing the sense or meaning of something but, even when this art is employed, it is amazing how much can get lost or misinterpreted along the way. So why do I not speak Japanese, even if only to understand the office gossip?

Research done on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills in 2001 revealed that, of all the "off-the-job" training provided by employers in England, only 4 per cent fell into the category of foreign languages. It was the least invested in skill (health and safety came top). When British employers were questioned about the general lack of job-related training compared to their European counterparts, they stated that employees were recruited with all the required skills and that further training would not produce any benefits for their business .

Who decides when enough learning has been done and on what grounds? Surely the nature of learning is to achieve and develop; a potentially infinite, evolving process with clear advantages. So why is it that, as adults, we often lose the desire to acquire new skills and knowledge that we possess so forcefully as children? Sadly, particularly when it comes to languages, it is laziness, combined with a lack of time (and perhaps money), as well as an absence of immediately tangible benefits that stop us enrolling on that language course. And then there is the arrogance factor.

When I tell people what I do and who I work for, people invariably ask, "Oh, do you speak Japanese then?" It irks me to say "no" because I feel the acknowledgement places me among that group of Brits abroad that takes pride that the whole world, it seems, can speak English, while their linguistic ability extends to being able to order beer and swear in nine different languages.

A lack of motivation

I chose to learn shorthand above a language because of the obvious benefits to my career. If I was going to commit to a language, without slighting Japanese, it would be the widely-spoken Spanish. However, if I am honest with myself, until I am in a situation where using English is not an option, I will continue to lack the motivation not to speak it. Ironically, it seems this prevalence of English spoken across the world may leave Britain lagging behind in the global skills market.

The government is paying a considerable amount of attention to the world's two fastest growing economies of China and India. Perhaps it follows that the solution is to train our next generation in competitiveness by making Chinese or Hindi compulsory in school. Australian children, until recently, learned French; they now learn Japanese. Equally, if more worth was placed on linguistic abilities in youth then they would not be so easily dismissed in adulthood. It is a long time since Britain was a colonial superpower; assuming the whole world can speak English should be an excuse of the past.

As the multi-culturally aware HSBC adverts demonstrate, the newest tools in fast-speed hi-tech business are almost useless without one of the oldest skills known to humans: communication. If we take instruction from the bank, it would be a welcome future to see the English not lost in translation, but lost in Linguaphones.

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