Languages – the global challenge
WE LIVE in a shrinking world, where, thanks to rapid advances in travel and communications, businesses of all sizes can operate in global markets. The challenge that come with this opportunity is being able to understand the needs, aims and motivations of a potential customer base that spans the world. And for the business leaders of today and tomorrow, that can only mean that languages and intercultural skills will become even more important.
From a business point of view, never has it
been so important and so useful to learn another language than today. There is a misconception that just because a company is based in the UK it isn’t necessary to speak a foreign language but the rapidly accelerating global economy and emergence of many new markets across the world means business is becoming more and more international. These trends, as well as the influence of the internet, are creating more overseas opportunities and an increasing need to communicate with people across a diverse range of countries and cultures. With such a small number of the UK’s workforce able to speak a second language, there is a real danger of us falling behind in the global economy.
British workers who speak a foreign language ‘fluently’ are rarely as fluent as foreign nationals are in English – mainly because British nationals tend to speak another language only if they have studied it. If you take a landlocked country like Luxembourg, you will find individuals who will speak three or four languages – including English – as a matter of course – it’s just part of their culture.
According to Leonard Orban, the European Commissioner for multilingualism, it is small and medium sized companies who are most likely to suffer from a lack of language skills. And according to a study commissioned by Brussels and undertaken by the UK National Centre for Languages, 11% of a sample of 2000 businesses had lost a contract as a result of having insufficient language skills. Consequently, in order to gain a competitive advantage in a global market, businesses must adopt a multilingual approach to business.
And we are not just talking about modern European languages like French, German and Spanish. For those that operate beyond traditional European markets, the rapid growth of many foreign economies and markets, especially in Asia, has led to a need for languages like Russian, Mandarin and Cantonese in the business world. And it’s not just required for a small number of deal makers in the biggest companies. Businesses of all sizes can now operate in global markets. If you have a good understanding of the local language of your customer base you gain tremendous advantages in day-to-day business meetings, in negotiations and in building relationships with clients. It makes it so much easier to pick up on cultural differences and nuances. Languages allow insight into potential new markets and competitors and also make it easier to form relationships so having people on your team who can speak another language can also offer useful marketing and business development skills
But it’s not just your managers that need language training, its support staff too. In a survey which we carried out last year, when it comes to communicating in a different language, UK businesses are falling dramatically behind their counterparts on the Continent. In a business environment that is becoming increasingly global, it seems that even a simple telephone request to some of the region’s top companies can leave them literally lost for words. The survey suggested that few office support staff in leading British companies are getting the training and support they need to deal with overseas customers and clients. Yet across the Channel, it’s a completely different story. The great majority of French and German PAs receptionists and office support staff, when confronted with an English speaker, could communicate fluently and effectively.
Obviously one of the main advantages of being able to speak another language is that it allows easy communication with other businesses across the world, but it does not end there. Language is a link to cultural identity and even if they are able, people may not want to speak English, especially while in their home country. Learning another language consequently brings with it a cultural understanding and sensitivity – just as important in helping to build strong relationships. And don’t forget that if you do not speak your customers’ language then it is very easy for them to exclude you from negotiations at meetings – as a famous advertising executive once said: “If I want to buy something from you, I will speak my own language, if I want to sell you something, I will speak yours!”
Steve Shack lock is managing director of specialist multilingual recruiter Euro London Appointments