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Language skills are a business essential

The Independent
Employers speak with same tongue on foreign success

Picture an international business gathering – and you can bet the chat over coffee and croissants will be in English, even if UK professionals are in the minority. Just over half of all Europeans are able to hold a conversation in at least one foreign language whereas the UK is second only to Ireland in being least likely to speak any foreign languages, says Vicky Wright, head of languages at the University of Southampton.

Yet UK businesses consistently say they want employees who know their way around a foreign language and culture. In the latest annual CBI/ Pearson education and skills survey, last year 72 per cent of businesses said they value foreign language skills among their employees, while one in five firms are concerned that ropey language skills might be losing them business. UK companies export disproportionately to English speaking companies, according to a report by an education and employers’ taskforce. More alarmingly, former treasury economic adviser James Foreman-Peck estimated in the report that our underinvestment in languages amounts to a “tax on trade” of some £7.3 billion.

And the good news? More students are signing up for free – or heavily subsidised – language tuition offered by nearly all universities. Students – post or undergraduate – can enrol on “open to all” courses at most institutions where languages are taught, even if their last brush with French or German was at GCSE. Even though numbers of degree-level modern linguists are declining, postgraduates are realising picking up a language alongside their main studies will oil the wheels of their career, be it in business, the public sector or academia, according to the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML).

High-flying graduates tend to want to work for leading employers, who want their staff to know the right way to make small talk in Brazil or just how familiar to be with Spanish colleagues. More worryingly, says Lizzie Fane, founder of thirdyearabroad.com, UK-based international businesses are reportedly recruiting bilingual candidates from university campuses abroad rather than hiring UK students, believing them to have superior language skills.

“Candidates who are bilingual or can converse with people from other countries will always have the upper hand,” says Alister Scott, Regional HR manager UK at online recruiters Lumesse, “especially with a company that works with customers across the globe or needs to build relationships in a new territory.”

Encouragingly, German – currently one of the languages most in demand by employers and in the greatest decline in schools – is now one of the most popular languages at designated university language centres. “Yes, Germans speak good English,” says Jocelyn Wyburd, director of the University of Cambridge Language Centre and vice chair of UCML. “But if you want to build good relations with your trading partners, it isn’t appropriate to always stick to your own language.” She reports students are also keen to learn the languages of growth economies – Portuguese, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese for instance, and demand for Russian remains buoyant.

While some courses may be incorporated within postgraduate funding or offered for free, others can cost up to £350. At Cambridge, nearly half of applied language students are post-graduates, and learners are about as likely to be scientists as humanities students. Most universities run courses over semesters and require about two hours of study a week; universities such as Cambridge also offer intensive holiday courses. While many students are overtly motivated by career prospects, others study to boost research skills – historians encountering original Nazi documents need a good grasp of German for instance. Once acquired, these language skills go on to serve postgraduates well – while they hobnob at international conferences or take posts within international organisations.

Even at universities such as Bournemouth where languages aren’t taught, students have free access to an independent learning centre offering six languages, and Spanish is the most popular – although as director Paul Barnes notes, UK postgraduates are less likely to take advantage as international students seeking to broaden their repertoire.

Naturally, graduates with an eye on their careers want to know which language to study. European languages are an obvious choice, as are those of emerging economies. “My advice would be to target languages that are spoken in the growth economies and prove devilishly difficult to operate in the country without a working command of the language,” says Gerry Miles, associate faculty member at Ashridge Business School.

“Being able to speak a foreign language isn’t just about communicating,” says John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council. “It’s key to understanding what’s really going on in another culture, which gives you a huge advantage in the world of business.”

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