The hidden tax on our international trade efforts – a lack of language skills

China, Russia, Brazil – the opportunities are certainly out there, but is language a barrier to the UK’s success in these markets? The research suggests so. 11% of SMEs acknowledge they had lost potential business because of a lack of language skills.[1] A study of 1,000 businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce showed that 80% of English exporters cannot competently conduct business dealings overseas in even one foreign language.[2] EC research shows that the UK has the worst language skills in Europe. As Roland Rudd, Chairman of Business new Europe states in a recent paper published by the Education and Employers taskforce, ‘our national language deficit effectively acts as a tax on trade’.[3] As he quite rightly points out, this is a tax businesses can’t afford to pay.

Working closely with exporters, we regularly encounter situations where lack of investment in language capability has cost a business dearly. This may mean being unable to respond to a new enquiry from overseas, or failing to work effectively with a new supplier. Sadly employers are finding that UK graduates just do not have the language skills they need to respond to these situations. Our experience concurs with research from the CBI showing that businesses are looking for at least ‘conversational ability’, rather than fluency.[4] Demonstrating at least a willingness to communicate in a potential customer’s language rather than relying on English can make all the difference.

So why is our language ability so poor? There are a number of factors, but clearly recent education policy has contributed to this deficit of language skills. In 2004, we saw a radical change in policy making languages optional after the age of 14. This disastrous decision resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of students studying a foreign language for GCSE with over half (57%) of UK pupils taking no language at GCSE level in 2010.[5]

Contributing to our language deficit is the still prevalent view, even at the highest levels of government that ‘Everyone speaks English so why bother?’ Do they really? 75% of the world population do not speak English at all.[6] We have also seen a dramatic shift in the use of English on-line, dropping from 50% in 2000 to 29% in 2009.[7] Whilst it may be acceptable to use English if you are buying from another country, it won’t be appreciated when trying to sell to international customers. In fact, customers are three times more likely to buy when addressed in their native language[8]. In today’s climate, talking to customers in their own language pays dividends.

This is a call to action to our business community to support the development of language skills in our young people. This will be key to avoiding the looming ‘language deficit tax’. Visiting schools to promote language learning, I regularly hear the frustrating response from young people ‘I don’t really need languages for my career’. I’m sure you will agree – how misguided they are. As we look overseas for growth, businesses are crying out for staff with some level of language ability. This misconception from young people needs to be reversed. And who better to do this, but the businesses that require those very skills. Understanding the real business context can make all the difference in helping young people to understand the value of language skills for the growth of our economy.

[1] Hagen, S. et al, (2006), ELAN: Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise

[2] BCC LANGUAGE SURVEY, The Impact of Foreign Languages on British Business, May 2004

[3] The economic case for language learning and the role of employer engagement, A publication by the Education and Employers Taskforce, November 2011

[4] CBI Education and Skills Survey Ready to grow: business priorities for education and skills (May 2010)

[5] British Academy

[6] CILT(the National Centre for Languages):

[7] CILT (2009a), Talking World Class: The impact of language skills on the UK economy, CILT

[8] Common Sense Advisory, Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters to Global Marketing – Donald A. DePalma

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