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Britain’s (lack of) language skills are hurting international growth

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It’s never been more important for British firms to trade overseas, but we may pay a price for our monolingualism. 

Over-two fifths (41 per cent) of British firms do not believe that local language fluency is critical to overseas business success. Yet, at a time when firms are being urged to do more international trade with emerging markets, business owners’ lack of foreign language skills could become an obstacle to growth.

Workplace provider Regus canvassed the views of 2,700 UK business owners, and found that only 35 per cent of firms appointing an expat to manage overseas operations require them to be fluent in the local language.

Is this because of the lack of foreign-language speakers in management positions?

“Despite the near ubiquity of English in world business, it’s clear that there will be an increasing premium on managers who speak Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Russian as the centres of business power move towards China and elsewhere,” says Stephan Chambers, MBA programme director at Saïd Business School in Oxford.

“Fluency in languages other than our own must help insight and understanding and, in turn, our national competitiveness.”

The Regus survey shows that an above-average proportion of firms (57 per cent) choose to staff foreign operations with local managers, which may reflect a specific cultural strategy, but is more likely to be influenced by the lack of foreign language speaking “home grown” talent.

Celia Donne, regional director at Regus, says that staffing decisions and language capabilities are a key sticking point:

“Many UK firms rely on English as the ‘lingua franca’ of business, but speaking the customer’s language helps build lasting relationships that make commercial dealings run smoother and could even prove a decisive factor in winning new business.”

Mike Liddle, a management consultant at real estate consultancy Business and Facilities Solutions, says that from the outset, his firm has operated internationally, taking advantage of high demand for specialist services in central Europe.

“It’s true that English is the lingua franca of management, particularly in central Europe, so although I speak French, for instance, it isn’t actually critical in dealing with the management at our customers and partners. But outside of central Europe, it can be more difficult to rely on English, and the approach we’ve taken is to appoint trusted local partners.

“This approach is also imperative when it comes to project delivery. Our partners allow us to operate in most countries and we rely heavily on their local expertise and knowledge to deliver a variety of projects.”

Worryingly, last week, separate research by Regus revealed that only 21 per cent of British companies intend to dip their toes into overseas markets in the next two years, compared to 39 per cent of French firms and 26 per cent of German firms.

Thirty-two per cent of businesses claimed that the biggest obstacle to overseas expansion is the challenge of setting up a physical presence in a foreign country.

* thanks Michael Gove.

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