Brexit has raised many questions over the future competitive trading position of Britain in Europe. While the economic impact of the political upheaval still plays out, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the fact that for a long time, UK companies have put themselves at a disadvantage in Europe; perhaps without even realising it. That disadvantage comes from a lack of language skills.
While it’s fair to say that English is the lingua franca of many corporations, it is also true that global companies can enjoy richer, more productive interactions with customers, suppliers, overseas colleagues and partners when they are able to operate within different cultures in different languages.
And while enhancing and improving business relationships is a universally useful endeavor, it would be a mistake to think that language skills in business are a matter of mere social niceties. In fact, they have significant material impact on the bottom line. Mark Herbert at the British Council summed it up nicely when he cited the estimated, “tens of billions in missed trade and business opportunities every year” resulting from the UK’s shortage of language skills.
While companies feel understandably powerless over the post-Brexit trading situation, they can take control of one aspect by taking stock of their in-house capabilities and building language skills that will help prepare them for the future.
The language skills gap
Many businesses do recognise that language skills gaps exist in their workforce and know that more needs to be done to solve them. Through a Rosetta Stone study, 87 per cent of polled executives from the UK and Germany identified more than one critical language in use in their organisation and almost two-thirds believed their employees need to improve language skills.
Like so many fundamental business skills, such as leadership, coaching and negotiation, language capabilities will serve the company day-to-day and will also help it take advantage of growth opportunities. As companies expand into new markets, their need for sustainable language learning grows. Equipping employees with these skills not only benefits the organisation through improved working relationships and enhanced performance, but also builds confidence in teams with regular international interactions, and boosts the career development of individuals by opening up growth opportunities within the company.
Businesses that successfully close their language skills gap can hope to improve customer service and relationships on an international scale. Multi-lingual businesses benefit from richer interactions between employees, customers, suppliers and partners. This flexibility in communication translates into increased sales opportunities, higher rates of productivity and smoother team inter-working.
So much so, that 79 per cent of executives in the Rosetta Stone survey said languages help improve relations with customers, 68 per cent that they help employee productivity and 72 per cent that sales opportunities increase.
All business learning initiatives are expected to have a positive impact on operations and in this, the importance of global communication and language learning can’t be underestimated. While ROI is important, the cultural impact of language skills and how they help prepare people in an increasingly globalised economy can’t be overlooked.
Companies that foster and encourage a multilingual culture find that language training is positive for employee satisfaction, motivation and confidence. Language proficiency is a transferable life skill; by breaking down communication barriers work becomes more productive and satisfying.
Language skills are important at all levels of business and across all business functions; they aren’t – or shouldn’t be – the development preserve of the C-suite, although here too they are invaluable, for equipping senior managers to handle complex business challenges with international understanding and co-operation.
New Year, new habits
As successful keepers of New Year’s resolutions would say, it’s not about the quick fix, it’s about creating new habits. So it goes for continuous language learning. Businesses recognising the central place that language skills occupy in building and maintaining international working relationships need an appropriate training solution for ongoing learning. They cannot expect to rely on employees entering the workforce with ready-made language skills. According to the 2015/16 Language Trends Survey from the British Council and Education Development Trust, since 2002 the number of pupils taking A level French exams has declined by approximately one third and those taking German by nearly half.
Fortunately, digital learning methods support businesses that want to equip employees with language skills, by providing flexible access to training that fits into their work routine. Digital learning can be started in the office, continued at home, tapped into from different devices and adapts to suit the learner. This includes tailored content and the opportunity to practise language skills in realistic situations. Centralised programme management also supports the business need to track and report on individual and organisation-wide progress.
Digital language learning builds proficiency and confidence in employees, , closing the vast skills gap that exists among UK businesses. This enables them to raise productivity, customer satisfaction and employee motivation and ultimately, win on a global stage.