Sacré bleu. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has asked all political parties to include a new “framework for national recovery in language learning” in their 2015 general election manifestos.
That framework should include pledges to “transform the reputation of UK citizens as poor linguists, reluctant to value languages other than English” and “actively encourage business and employers to get involved in tackling the crisis”. The good news for businesses is the group also suggested that employers might be offered tax incentives to “recruit or train homegrown linguists”.
Our less than impressive reputation for linguistic prowess is well earned it seems, with the UK lagging way behind other EU countries when it comes to speaking foreign languages. According to European Commission (EC) research, only 39% of UK adults can hold a conversation in a foreign language, compared to the EU average of 54%.
“So what?” you might say, after all, “English is the international language of business”, n’est pas? Well, to an extent, oui, I mean, yes, but English isn’t always widely spoken in many markets and lack of foreign language skills is holding back many UK businesses – and that could include yours.
UK employers frequently bemoan the shortage of foreign language-speaking British workers. A UK Commission for Employment and Skills survey in 2013 found that where vacancies were not filled because of a lack of skills, in almost a fifth of cases that meant lack of foreign language skills. According to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2014, 65% of firms require foreign language skills.
Au contraire, you counter, as you sit there all smug, armed with your conversational French, Spanish or Italian. Yet many Brits who can speak a foreign language don’t put that key skill to good commercial use, and perhaps too many of us are guilty of not looking beyond our own shores as much as we should. According to the CBI, only a fifth of UK SMEs export, despite businesses being 11% more likely to survive if they do.
Readers of a Euro-sceptic disposition might want to look away now, but UK exports to EU countries alone support 4.2m UK jobs and are worth £211bn to the national economy (source: FT.com), while total UK exports to non-EU countries are worth almost £150bn a year (source: Gov.uk). The US remains the most important single market to the UK economy, accounting for £41bn or 13.4% of all exports (source: Santander UK).
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) recently published its International Trade Survey for Q1 2014 and it found that while 90% of UK firms have ambitions to grow domestically, only 43% are looking beyond the UK for sales, despite 55% of current exporters reporting a positive impact on their bottom line within just 12 months of expanding into new markets abroad.
John Longworth, BCC director general, says: “We need to do more as a nation to take the fear out of exporting. I speak to businesses that have full order books here in the UK and don't see why they would need to take their goods and services overseas. To transform businesses’ mindset, we need to create an environment that makes it worthwhile for them to export.
“We must invest even more in supporting and promoting international trade. The UK should be matching the resourcing dedicated to export support provided by our major international competitors. And government intervention must be more focused in areas that can really make a difference, such as providing greater access to finance to growing firms – particularly when a quarter of non-exporters say that increased funding would encourage them to export. Only a concerted national campaign and sustained investment will get more UK firms to look beyond our shores for growth opportunities.”
Even simple steps, such as creating pages in select foreign languages could attract many more overseas visitors to your website and give your sales a serious boost. More of us finally committing to learning to speak a foreign language well would also greatly help, of course.
• Visit the BCC Export Britain website for more information about how to start selling to customers overseas.
Blog written by Mark Williams, freelance content writer and editor of Start Up Donut.