Britain bottom of the class for language skills

Jul 06 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A lack of language skills is damaging Britain's economy and international trade, with too many firms making the dangerous assumption that English is enough for success in the global marketplace.

The UK sits firmly at the bottom of the European Commission's language league table and the proportion of its business executives able to negotiate in more than one language is half the European average.

And according to a new report from CILT, the National Centre for Languages, where language skills do exist, they tend to be at managerial levels rather than among front-line staff where they are most urgently needed.

A comparison of multinational companies in the UK, France and Germany shows that those based in the UK are the least concerned with communicating in the language of their international partners and see little need to improve their employees' linguistic proficiency.

Meanwhile, only one third of UK graduates are confident enough to go abroad to work, compared to the two thirds of their counterparts in other European Countries.

Unsurprisingly, surveys of exporting businesses have found that eight out of 10 export managers cannot competently conduct dealings in even one foreign language, while nearly half have experienced linguistic or cultural barriers and one in five has lost business as a result.

More broadly, the report argues, this complacency means that the current pattern of UK international trade reflects linguistic competence rather more than market opportunity.

UK companies are therefore failing to capitalise on opportunities in new and emerging markets - which have much greater potential for economic growth - because they tend to avoid markets where little English is spoken.

For example, the percentage of British trade with Denmark (pop. 5 million) is the same as for the whole of Central and South America despite a population of 390 million.

Similarly, the UK does proportionately more business with Scandinavian countries where English is not a barrier to communication than with countries like Spain and Italy where English is not so widely spoken.

But as the report points out, the situation is getting worse for British business because the study of languages at school and university is in steep decline, with a 15 per cent drop in the number of students choosing to study languages for a first degree between 1999 and 2002.

"British companies will be making a big mistake if they are complacent about the need for foreign languages when their competitors already see this as a key component of their international marketing and sales strategy," said Hugh Morgan Williams, Chairman of the CBI's SME Committee.

"Anyone who is serious about doing business in an international context needs to wake up to the need for languages. British companies will be making a big mistake if they over-estimate the role of English when their competitors are already able to respond in several languages."