The cost of being lost for words

Linguistic inadequacies

The World Today
1 minute READ

Alan Philps

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Britain’s ignorance of other languages costs the country 3.5 per cent of national income, equivalent to £48 billion in 2006, according to research by James Foreman-Peck and Yi Wang of Cardiff Business School.

As a result of poor linguistic skills, trade by British companies was lower than it might otherwise have been in France, Germany and Japan as well as rising powers such as Brazil, China and India.

Language skills affect exporting in two ways: being able to communicate in the same language as trade partners makes a firm more likely to be an exporter; and firms with poor language skills are unaware of the cultural factors which affect their ability to operate in overseas markets.

This message does not seem to have got through to British companies. A 2014 survey of employers conducted for the Confederation of British Industry showed that the vast majority (94 per cent) did not require ‘a high level of language fluency as an essential core competence of their operations’.

The answer may lie in the fact that companies operating without foreign languages are unaware of how blindly they operate in non-English-speaking markets, the Cardiff report concludes.

What the researchers call the ‘Anglophone temptation’ is not restricted to Britain, but even among English-speaking nations, Britain seems to be linguistically backward. A 2005 Eurobarometer survey found that in Ireland, 41 per cent can speak at least one other language than their mother tongue (including Irish Gaelic) at the level of being able to have a conversation, but in Britain only 30 per cent have this ability.

Professor Foreman-Peck has suggested that changing the education system is not the only way to redress the language deficit. A low-cost fix would be to link foreign students studying in British business schools through placements with exporters. But that would not provide an exit from what one researcher has called the ‘silo of English’.