Vous êtes congédié! Monoglots bad for business

June 23, 2011

British business is losing out because of the nation's foreign language failings - yet academics are struggling to convince their universities to do anything about it.

Those were among the issues raised in The Future of UK Modern Languages, a debate organised by the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies and the Modern Humanities Research Association.

Academics, politicians, employers and journalists all spoke at the event at the University of London's Senate House on 17 June to discuss the problems.

Naomi Segal, director of the institute, opened proceedings by noting how a team on this year's series of BBC One's The Apprentice had lost a task to design a mobile phone application because they did not understand that, in many of the foreign markets for such products, not everybody understands English.

Adam Marshall, director of policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, said Britons' poor language skills often represented a barrier to business growth for three reasons: firms cannot find workers with the languages they need; they are forced to cut back on export plans or restrict them to "low-growth European economies"; and they have no way of "shaping the European and wider business environment".

"The British represent 12 per cent of the population within the European Union, but have only 5 per cent of the jobs," Dr Marshall added. "We are simply not in on many of the crucial meetings that lead to legislation."

However, Michael Worton, vice-provost (academic and international) at University College London, said there were positive signs for languages in schools and universities thanks to plans for an English baccalaureate and increased government funding for the British Academy.

"It is bad to cast ourselves as powerless," he added. "Those in power often need our help, for example in providing them with photo opportunities.

"(But) when we can't even convince peers within our own universities about the value of languages, why should we expect government or business to listen?"

Baron Wills, who was justice minister during Gordon Brown's premiership, said: "The case for a greater commitment to modern languages in the UK has been obvious for 30 years. But you have to keep repeating it because the context is different."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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