Are languages old business?

By Ruby Muir

‘Why bother when everyone speaks English?’, ‘There are other things that are more worth my time’ are just a few of the many comments heard about learning languages in playgrounds, universities and workplaces today. Throughout the country our priorities have shifted, increasing the void between apparently employable, practical and worthwhile skills and the study of foreign languages. With the removal of compulsory language study for 14-16 year olds in 2004, the number of students studying languages to a high level has plummeted drastically. This has resulted in a deficit of graduates equipped to transfer their language skills to the continually expanding global markets.

But what effect does this actually have on our businesses and global profile? There is some argument that a mastery of English is all you need when working and trading on a global level. Countless European countries raise their children to be bilingual with English and those that don’t are quickly implementing widespread bilingual school programmes to catch up. China, India and countless others, all operate with such a high level of English language that communicating haphazardly in other native tongues could be unnecessary.

But where does this leave us in reality? Practically this absence of language skills costs our economy £48 billion a year. Parts of this results from expenses to businesses who have to employ translators to carry out foreign exchanges where the level of English isn’t sufficiently high. For smaller business where this is unaffordable this means a loss of business. For a prospective linguist, this void creates huge advantage making them a valuable asset, able to communicate directly without an intermediary thereby improving their commercial opportunities. Even without a broad grasp of a foreign language, the ability to greet and exchange niceties in someone’s native tongue should not be underestimated. The care and effort of this gesture can very much enhance the tone and outcome of prospective negotiations and build beneficial relationships for the future.

Moreover, an understanding of a foreign language is accompanied by a cultural appreciation that can be useful when adapting campaigns and brands to foreign markets. Understanding the comedy and other reference points of a target nation can help personalise and enhance global marketing campaigns. It also allows adaption to cultural norms during exchange and negotiation. In this way, knowledge of foreign languages can change perspectives, remove perceived barriers and enable confident expansion in new markets.

However, with the looming execution of Brexit, the prospects of educating the future workforce in foreign languages are uncertain. Within days of the Leave victory, Danuta Hübner, the head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, announced that English will lose its official status as an EU language after the separation. With this change, it could be that for the UK to continue with some European trade, language skills will need to become a key priority. It could be we will need to focus on educating our children in Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi to secure reliable trade from beyond Europe. It could be that an independent Britain and the US will be enough to retain the Anglo dominance in global markets. Currently, no one knows.

Nonetheless, the EU contributions to language education, such as the funding of its study abroad programme Erasmus and living grants for students, are sure to be cut and are unlikely to be replaced through government funding. This could inhibit the study of languages for many prospective students, to whom living abroad for the compulsory year would be an unaffordable luxury. Depending on movement and immigration changes, the resource of native teachers and language assistants could be depleted, reducing the authenticity of cultural and linguistic learning. Again, no one knows.

All that is clear is that the shape of post-Brexit Britain will for the foreseeable future remain uncertain. However, we know for sure that language skills are a fantastically valuable asset to have within our businesses and workforces. It is clear that as a country, we need to adjust our attitude that learning languages is other people’s responsibility. We need to fight for our youth to engage culturally and linguistically to keep up with their counterparts in China, Europe and the rest of the world. Most importantly, we need to stop telling ourselves that the skills we gained from that bit of French we learnt in school or ‘the get by in’ classes at the local community centre aren’t adequate, useful or able to make a difference in international engagements.

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