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Businesses need to brush up language skills to compete on the world stage

4 Mins

Tax breaks or grants should be made available to British businesses to ensure each don’t miss out on vital global revenues because of staff’s poor foreign language skills.

Gary Muddyman, chief executive of translation experts Conversis, said the government must take action to allow UK businesses to perform better against their European and global rivals.

“A lack of foreign language skills amongst their staff is stopping businesses getting overseas contracts, pitching for new business and finding partners,” he said.

“People are ten times more likely to buy goods and services from you if you speak their language but we’re already near the bottom of the league when it comes to modern language teaching in schools and it is getting worse. The number of GCSE students taking foreign languages is dropping and sixth form colleges are cutting the courses they offer because of financial pressures. Businesses should be helped to teach their staff these skills.”

He made his comments following a Conversis report that found 25 per cent of senior UK executives said they had lost business because their newest employees lacked the necessary language skills. In addition, 40 per cent said a lack of cultural understanding was also to blame for lost business opportunities.

The study also found that two-thirds of senior directors at businesses that currently, or are looking to, operate internationally are worried that many young adults’ perspectives or educational experiences are not broad enough to operate in a multicultural economy. This rises to more than three-quarters, 76 per cent, at large businesses with over 250 employees.

Another three-quarters, 74 per cent, indicated their organisation values new college hires and graduates with international skills that can advance their international trade efforts, rising to 86 per cent and 80 per cent at medium and large businesses respectively.

Two-thirds added their company looks for new college hires and graduates with first language competency other than English that can connect them to new markets, while a similar number say they would hire multilingual candidates over those who lack a second language.

“Amongst the general election manifestos only the Conservative party mentioned foreign language learning and it was a very minor part,” continued Muddyman.

“This is a cultural issue – learning languages is not part of the British ethos. English is still the main language of business worldwide but we haven’t realised that because of the internet and the growth in international trade and emergence of new markets that demand for languages such as Latin American Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese has increased. Our European competitors are ahead of us on this.”

Muddyman added he will take the findings of the study to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and get “this issue on the political and social agenda”.

He went on to say: “We want to start a dialogue with politicians. We are at the tipping point now and more must be done to help business performance. Over the long-term it has to come from getting more language teaching at all levels of education including primary. But in the short term, businesses should be encouraged to do more with grants and tax breaks.”

He recognises the irony of a translation service, which counts FTSE giants Shell and Rexam as clients, encouraging better language skills.

“Yes, you would think less linguistic ability would be better for us,” Muddyman said. “But we deal with high-level, nuanced communication. What businesses really need help with is the day to day communication. We need greater recognition that language is important.”

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