The critical, forgotten skill for global competitiveness


It was dismaying to read reports in this week’s news about the continued decline of foreign language learning in UK schools and universities.  In the world of global markets and international business I continue to find it astounding that the UK culture doesn’t associate “global” with the need to be able to competeglobally and therefore interact globally by mastering foreign languages.  How can we continue to place so little importance on this skill and rely on “Oh well, they all speak English anyway”?  (And by the way, they don’t.)

You see, it’s so unusual for native English speakers to master a foreign language that our international counterparts don’t expect us to be able to get past “Bonjour” , “Guten Morgen” or “Buenos Dias”.  If the reply is “Good morning” but we carry on in the foreign language we are met with raised, surprised eyebrows and a smile.  The conversation continues in the foreign language, often in my experience with relief that there is no need to stop and expect everyone else to switch into English.

When learning a language everyone has to start with the basics.  But if we stop there our level of understanding misses the nuance, feeling and cultural sensitivities, not to mention the ability to move beyond the present tense.  Put a sales negotiation in basic English into that context and the risk of misunderstandings and protracted discussions grows.  We should stop just expecting everyone else to have a strong command of English and ensure we can remain competitive on the global stage.  How much better it is to be able to say “Let’s do this discussion in German“, when embarking on a negotiation with, in this example, native German speakers.  The discussion moves quicker and all the nuances are captured if the native English speaker is also a fluent German speaker.

“But hang on, English is the international language!” I hear you say.  Well OK, I accept English is the international language and I’ve heard so many times that it is easy to learn.  At first?  Well yes, maybe.  Compared with sixteen ways of saying “the” in German it could be seen as such.  But understanding the difference between “I play” and “I am playing”, and why “I am playing tennis twice a week” is wrong, or try to explain how “a piece of work” doesn’t mean a written text, a play or a sculpture in the context of “she’s a nasty piece of work” shows it’s maybe not that simple.  So why do we leave our foreign language learning at “Bonjour” and continue to rely on others learning the complexities of our language?

What we should be doing is ensuring we can continue to do business globally by building on all the critical skills needed.  But how to convince we Brits as a nation that language learning is one of those critical skills?  We’re yet to find a solution.  We happily commit years of study to other subjects so we master them at higher education, but we give up on languages as teenagers with a sigh of relief, because we can and nobody encourages us to do otherwise.  Something’s wrong here.

The solution is staring us in the face.  We have to raise foreign languages to the same critical prowess as other subjects and inspire the Millennials to realise there’s more to language than Emoticons.  Learning a foreign language at first is slow and painful, so we give up because it’s soul-destroying to put the time in and still not be able to understand what is being said.  But one day the see-saw tips to the other side – we do understand the reply and we’re on our way to speaking the language fluently.  Discussions become pacy, exciting and business moves faster.  In today’s world of the self-obsessed selfie, “I-want-it-now” culture we have lost sight of the need to tip the see-saw.  It may be slow on the way up, but it’s much faster on the way down.  And that’s what will enable native English speakers to do business globally, without losing the ability to express ourselves via emoticons.