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More Needs to Be Done to Help UK Businesses Beat the Language Learning Crisis

15/09/2014 15:31 BST | Updated 11/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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(Image via Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

In July this year, an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report on modern languages announced that without a 'step change' in the nation's ability in foreign languages, the economy will suffer and the UK's international reputation will be damaged. The group finished their report by urging all political parties to make a commitment to improve the nation's language skills in their manifestos for next year's general election. However, to date not a single political party has issued a response to this report or suggested how they will tackle this issue if they get elected.

This is a potentially catastrophic mistake, as a growing lack of foreign language skills amongst school leavers and graduates is already damaging UK businesses by making it much harder for them to work internationally. The number of students taking language degrees is at a record low, with 44 universities scrapping courses since 2000- according to the APPG report. What's more, an additional section of the report stated that only 9 per cent of English 15 year olds are competent in a first foreign language beyond a basic level.

The report doesn't just call on schools and the government to act: it also states that businesses and employers should be committed to improving language skills amongst their staff. Ian Bauckham, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, stated: "Schools cannot solve this problem alone. We are supporting this approach because it includes employers."

However, this hardly needs to be said, as for many years businesses have had to make their own arrangements where languages are concerned. As they expand into international markets, it's vital that UK companies have the ability to communicate in multiple languages but linguistically limited UK employees aren't always up for this challenge. To plug this knowledge gap a lot of businesses turn to professional language training companies who offer business language lessons in everything from French to Chinese.

Other courses on offer may include cultural training courses aimed at helping employees understand how to live, work in and do business with another country or how to work in a multicultural team. These are topics that - in an ideal world - pupils would receive a grounding in at school, but despite a curriculum focus on what it means to be a 'global citizen', this doesn't currently seem to be the case.

Declan Mulkeen, a spokesperson for UK based language and intercultural training firm Communicaid explains: "Enhancing the foreign language skills of employees ensures companies are not only able to speak to their customers and partners in their own language, but also improve cross-company team collaboration - vital in modern day multinational organisations. As a result, we've seen an increase in the number of businesses coming to us to ask for language training for their employees. In the case of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, best known as the makers of the Playstation, they had identified a need to improve communication between their EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) offices as well as with their headquarters in Japan. We worked with them to deliver business language training programmes to over 70 individuals. Sony fed back to say that the language training helped them improve communication across their territories."

Beyond reducing the number of failed international business ventures, having staff with language skills can help improve the way an international business communicates internally, as in the case of Sony. Language is a significant cultural barrier, and an inability to communicate effectively with colleagues from other countries can cause significant, costly delays, confusion and mistakes.

Mr Mulkeen adds: "In the past, language training wasn't always at the top of the training agenda for HR and Learning and Development departments due to the reliance on translation and interpreting services and an assumption that English was the international language of business. With the growth in international expansion combined with the rise of global emerging superpowers such as China, Brazil, India and Russia, that isn't the case anymore. UK companies need to be willing and able to work with local contacts in their own language to develop profitable relationships and compete."

Business language training is certainly helping to prevent the language learning crisis turning into a full blown catastrophe, but Britain can't plug the debilitating gap in UK foreign language skills with adult learning alone: we need to combine these services with significant and wide ranging educational policy changes. There has already been a move to make language learning compulsory in primary schools, but little has been done to help those schools to prepare for this curriculum change, leading to a vast difference in approaches across the country. According to the Guardian, some schools are delivering fairly rigorous teaching, while others are simply learning a few words or singing a song.

In addition, politicians also need to reverse the damaging 2004 decision to make language learning optional at GCSE level, a move that caused the number of young people studying a foreign language GCSE to drop by a third between 2004 and 2010, a decline that is still continuing. This means that pupils can choose to 'drop' languages when choosing their GCSE options in Year 9, aged just 13-14. Few children really know what they want to do in the future at that age: they only know that learning a language is hard and choose to walk away. Over time, this has led to fewer pupils taking language A Levels, fewer still taking a language degree- putting pressure on already struggling University language departments- and only a vanishingly small number choosing to become language teachers. It's a vicious cycle that urgently needs to be addressed.

Last- and by no means least- a sticking plaster needs to be applied to significant cuts in university funding by subsidising languages at University level: essentially helping those departments stay afloat at a difficult time. If that happens then UK businesses may still have a chance when it comes to keeping up with the ambitious BRIC countries. If not, then the UK economy may never fully recover.