Feature: Language Skills - Ignore Them at Your Peril

The UK doesn't have a tremendous reputation for linguists, but with the increasing pressures of globalisation, businesses need staff with foreign language skills more than ever. James Pitman, MD for Rosetta Stone UK looks at how e-learning can be a cost effective method of learning new language skills.

One of the most prevalent issues facing UK businesses today in terms of skills and learning is a deficiency in language skills. According to a recent survey by CILT, The National Centre for Languages, the UK's weakness in language is severely hampering its ability to trade effectively. In over 20% of cases, it was blamed for the loss of business. To add insult to injury, the UK recently was ranked bottom in a league table of 28 European countries in terms our language capabilities. This problem is posing a serious threat to businesses and is set to worsen, unless language learning is placed firmly on the boardroom agenda.

A recent British Chamber of Commerce Survey of 1,000 businesses also made for worrying reading. Although two thirds of exporters speak a foreign language, 80% are unable to conduct business in a foreign language. Most - 77% - of these exporters reported they have lost export sales over the past two years as a result of poor language skills or a lack of cultural understanding.

Sir Digby Jones, director general of the CBI is just one of the many high profile figures calling on government and business to start focusing on languages. “We are an island race, but must embrace the world and speak its languages if we want to be in the pole position for business,” he said.

“Our research shows that companies who are proactive in developing language skills can increase their export turnover dramatically. As all businesses know, it is much more cost effective to obtain new contracts from existing customers, and that can only be achieved by developing relationships. With overseas customers, that means the ability to communicate with them in their own language,” he added.

However, the failure of UK businesses to take language training seriously is linked to the complacent attitude to training in general. A recent report commissioned by labour market economists at Skills for Business, which surveyed over 13,000 UK employers, revealed a clear acknowledgement of a skills gap in new employees, but a reticence on their part to invest in training. Results showed that two out of three employers admit they have problems recruiting new employees with the skills they need. However, three out of five do not provide yearly training plans for their employees.

Professor Mike Campbell, Director of Research at Skills for Business and one of the country's most prominent labour market economists said: "Complacent employers could pose a serious threat to the future of the UK's economy. With the age of our skilled workforce rising and many employers failing to train enough of their staff, we are sitting on a skills time bomb. Our productivity levels are already 8% lower than the EU average, amounting to some £80 billion of lost output to our economy. If this situation continues, there is a very real risk that it could have serious economic implications for the future prosperity of the UK."

What is clear is that UK businesses need to dramatically reassess their attitude to training, placing language learning at the centre of any corporate training strategy if they are to compete in today’s global economy

A potential barrier to language learning is cost. One-to-one language training is often prohibitively expensive and the range of languages needed is shifting; in the past few years corporate training budgets have been cut back and there is the added issue of busy executives not being able to afford the time to undertake classroom-based language training at work, or to attend evening classes in their spare time.

Language learning to date has also not been seen as a strategic business asset by many UK companies. If it is carried out, it is often on a needs must basis, for example, provided only if an executive is going to relocate abroad. This is a very narrow and short sighted way of addressing language and communication problems in business and is an issue that needs to be addressed. Businesses need to think long-term and strategically; they should be looking to make the most of recent EU enlargement opportunities, which offer a 25 country trading block with 20 different languages and 450 million potential consumers, and train their staff accordingly. Furthermore, with the Far East opening up, learning Mandarin should also be high on the boardroom agenda. Why are companies failing to act upon these opportunities?

One reason that language learning is overlooked is the lack of knowledge about alternatives to traditional classroom based training. Online language learning affords anywhere, anytime learning at relatively low cost; but it can also be highly interactive and dynamic and the fastest way for learners to become fluent. Technology has advanced to such a degree that online language learning has proven to be more effective in many cases than traditional learning methods.

Dynamic immersion e-learning software is a methodology that teaches learners a new language in the same way they learnt their first language; by linking new words with real-world objects and events. This method of e-learning does not use translation, avoids tedious memorisation and grammar drills and instead relies on thousands of real-life images, written texts and voices of native speakers to teach learners in the most natural way possible. It also includes voice recognition technology and a feedback mechanism so learners can improve their pronunciation and check that their accent is correct. A major benefit of immersion e-learning language learning software is that with no translation, it is equally effective for learners of any background or mother tongue and therefore ideally suited to multi-national businesses with diverse language learning needs. Firms should also ensure that the e-learning software they choose is available at a number of levels, from the very basic to the more complex, in order to provide learners with the scope to develop their language prowess and meet the needs of all levels of learners. This also means that firms can offer language learning based on business need, as well as self -development courses as a benefit for employees generally.

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