To speak or not to speak… another language!

Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral by Andrew McMillan


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a business with a good product must be in want of a market to export it to. Exporting products not only offers the opportunity of increased sales for individual businesses, but for the country’s overall economic growth. However, in the second report this year by the British Chambers of Commerce on the UK export market, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. Whilst the report highlighted the fact that the number of UK businesses exporting had increased by 21%, the total figure showed that still only 39% of British businesses were peddling their wares abroad. The main barrier? Language skills.


An alarming 70% of businesses who responded to the BCC’s survey said that their company had no foreign language skills whatsoever, severely limiting their chances of making it overseas. Interestingly the two sectors in most dire need of linguists report themselves to be IT and manufacturing, two sectors outlined as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy.


Having foreign language capabilities in your business not only makes it easier to establish those all-important, initial business relationships, but linguists also bring a level of cultural understanding and communication skills rarely matched by monolingual individuals. A foreign language also gives businesses the ability to sell outside of the big cities, into more rural regions of foreign markets where levels of English can often be patchy.


French remains the most commonly spoken language for business Brits, although only 5% claim to be able to speak with adequate fluency to sell abroad. 57% speak no German, 64% no Spanish, 76% no Italian and a whopping 99.5% speak no Chinese or Russian, immediately ruling themselves out of these two rapidly-growing markets.


Most shockingly of all however, is the news that 62% of businesses who say that they want to and are ready to export, say that a lack of language skills is a barrier to them doing so. That’s 62% of UK business innovation failing to seize the international opportunities open to them overseas and billions of pounds of potential UK income being snapped up by multilingual businesses abroad with similar ideas.


The good news is that it is relatively easy to fix. In the long term, the BCC is calling for the government to return language learning to the central role in the National Curriculum that it used to enjoy, making learning a foreign language compulsory until AS level. They are also calling on the government to provide tax credits for small and medium sized businesses who invest in language training for their staff. However, in the nearer future, UK businesses, particularly those based in London are blessed with some of the widest intake of foreign language skills from abroad of anywhere in the world. You just have to know where to look.