The traditional British approach to communicating with foreigners — if they do not understand you, shout louder in English — is costing money and jobs.
A survey of UK companies has found that a quarter of those operating internationally or planning to do so have lost business because employees do not have sufficient foreign language skills.
This is one factor undermining the government’s export push: goods exports fell in July and the target to double the value of exports to £1tn by 2020 is well behind schedule. It may not be reached until 2034, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.
The dearth of British language specialists is highlighted by the recruitment patterns of Conversis, a translation specialist that works for Canon and Shell among others. Only one-seventh of applicants for staff jobs at the company, which commissioned the report, were British.
While translation work is carried out by thousands of freelancers around the world, the Bicester-based business needs linguists as project managers. Gary Muddyman, chief executive, said the recent push to promote Stem subjects at school — science, technology, engineering and maths — should be widened. “I would be in favour of Stem-L,” he said.
“English has become the lingua franca of business. So we have not had to learn other languages. It is an issue for UK plc’s competitiveness.
“If you address someone in their native tongue, they are 10 times more likely to buy from you — whatever their competence in English.”
Mr Muddyman advises MPs on the all-party parliamentary group on modern languages. They found only one reference to the subject in party manifestos for this year’s election. “There is no interest in this from senior politicians,” he said.
Languages are compulsory up to the age of 16 in just 16 per cent of state schools, according to the MPs’ group, while only 9 per cent of 15-year-olds are competent in their first foreign language beyond a basic level, compared with an average of 42 per cent across 14 countries.
The Conversis survey found that a third of companies had difficulty filling vacancies because of the scarcity of language skills.
Two in five businesses said a lack of cultural understanding among their newest employees had created a barrier to growth.
The report found that, while the numbers studying languages were dropping, there was growth in Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. George Osborne, the chancellor, is allocating £10m to fund Mandarin teaching.
There were only 302,500 entries for the three most popular language GCSEs in 2015, compared with 321,000 in 2014 and about 332,000 in 2013. Entries for French were down 6.2 per cent, German down 9.2 per cent and Spanish down 2.4 per cent.
The Department for Education said: “All pupils should have the opportunity to study foreign languages as part of a core academic curriculum to compete with their peers from across the globe. That’s why from 2014 we made languages compulsory at primary school.
“We have seen a year-on-year increase in overall entries to A-level modern languages, and we expect that to continue as a result of the longer-term trend in rising GCSE entries for those subjects.”
However, more than a third of sixth-form colleges in England have cut the number of foreign language A-levels they offer because of financial pressures.
Fruugo, an ecommerce site that sells in 23 countries, said it had hired several foreign employees because it could not find British people with the right skills.
The Cumbria-based business is a mini-Amazon, selling goods from hundreds of retailers across the world. Its staff need to help businesses comply with tax rules, handle currencies and payment systems, and offer customer support.
Glen Richardson, Fruugo’s chief marketing officer, said: “The English education system does not put enough emphasis on languages. The world has changed, and language skills and cultural awareness are more necessary now than ever.”
About 65 per cent of executives worried that many young adults’ perspectives or educational experiences were not broad enough to operate in a multicultural economy.
The CBI employers’ organisation has also called for language teaching to be given higher priority. Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director for employment and skills, said: “Our latest research shows that nearly two-thirds of businesses are concerned by the lack of foreign language skills among school leavers.
“Growing, ambitious firms seeking new markets, as well as larger companies with established overseas operations, need people with good language skills.”
Nitish Singh, of the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University in the US, said: “British businesses are losing out to foreign competitors because of the lack of cross-cultural competence.”
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