Donavan Whyte: Is saying hello to Chinese and goodbye to French really a good idea?

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When it comes to language in business Chinese is important, but forgetting our European neighbours could be bad for business.

David Cameron’s recent visit to China has once again put the spotlight on language learning in the UK. It isn’t the only event this year that has focused the mind on this area. The Daily Telegraph described foreign language courses as being ‘in freefall’ in August following revelations that the number of pupils taking French and German at A-level had plummeted to an all time low. Examination boards are now looking at a ‘rescue plan’ to increase interest in these subjects. So why is it that in a world that is more global than ever language learning in the UK appears to be going out of fashion? Is it, as David Cameron appeared to imply, down to the fact that we are learning the wrong languages?

David Cameron’s visit to China has raised interesting questions about how we should go about overcoming the language learning deficit in the UK and prepare our students for future success in business. His assertion that we should all focus on learning Mandarin instead of French may be slightly wide of the mark (more on that later) but it does illustrate one important fact and that is that the range of languages that we are learning must be broader to face the challenges of the modern global marketplace.

This need for a wider range of language learning is unsurprising. As Cameron himself acknowledged, for the UK economy to compete successfully we need to make sure we are producing global citizens and an understanding of the need to equip students with essential language skills in order to gain a competitive edge in today’s global marketplace is most welcomed by those within the language learning and business community.

Interestingly however, despite the A-level statistics and David Cameron’s statement that pupils should look beyond learning French from a business perspective, the increasing interest in Asian languages should be more of an ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’. Indeed our research shows that, in the world of business at least,  rather than going out of fashion, European corporates are investing more in language learning than ever before (in 2012 the number of corporates investing in languages was over 100 times higher than in 2008). Interestingly however, French is still near the top, as the 3rd most requested language. Chinese Mandarin is much further down the priority list so far in 2013 coming in at 7th and is in fact four times less popular than French when it comes to investing in the tools to help staff learn the language.

The reality is that whilst Asia is an increasingly significant trade partner for the UK, the EU remains by far our nation’s biggest market. Although trade with the rest of the world is increasing, currently we export more to the European Union than to the rest of the world put together.

That said, we recognise that companies are looking to Asian markets more and more and that Chinese Mandarin is in fact becoming a more requested language in business (with 133% more staff being taught the language through their business since 2010). There is no denying the increasing position China holds upon the world stage. Estimates show that 70% of world growth over the next few years will come from emerging markets, with nations such as China and India accounting for almost half of that growth. The promotion of a common language between the UK and China is essential for increasing collaboration and productivity and cultural relations between our two countries.

David Cameron’s broad statement highlights a language deficit that absolutely needs to be addressed, and we have seen some steps in the right direction within the UK education system to promote the position of language learning on the agenda for change. Businesses have a substantial and important role to play here too and if the government wants the UK’s future businessmen and women to have the languages needed to succeed in the international market, corporates need to ensure their short and long term strategies support the moves being made in education to promote languages needed now, and in the future.

Businesses value language skills among their employees, and almost three quarters of the businesses who responded to a recent CBI Survey asserted that languages skills are essential for their employees for building relationships with clients, customers and suppliers.

Aside from relationship building, the right language skills can enable market expansion, better customer service, workplace safety and workforce development. It mustn’t be forgotten for example that language learning can add far more than just economic value; it can also offer great rewards in terms of employee personal development.

Research shows that learning a new language promotes self confidence as well as encouraging a more inclusive and integrated society. It makes people more likely to travel, opening up new possibilities and encouraging greater understanding of different cultures. This is supported by our recent survey results that showed that 58% of Brits believe the main advantage of speaking a second language is that it makes travelling and seeing the world much more accessible.

The benefits of promoting language learning with businesses are clear. Perhaps what demands more attention however, is knowing which languages are important for your business now, and in the future. Promoting language learning throughout the business can contribute to the success of the business, the safety of employees, and the confidence and moral of all those taking part.

Greater diversity in language learning is what the UK should aim for, starting from school and continuing into business. Whilst Chinese is certainly one of the languages that should be explored and developed in UK business, we mustn’t forget those European languages that have, and always will be highly valued for the UK economy.

Donavan Whyte, VP EMEA Enterprise and Education at Rosetta Stone

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One Comment - Write a Comment

  1. I am one of many people who for decades have argued quietly that institutional support for Esperanto as a lingua franca could bring many benefits to the world.

    Esperanto is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. I would like to argue the case for its wider use.

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