In my opinion: Sir Peter Parker, chairman of the DTI's National Languages for Export Campaign and Institute of Management companion, says learn a language or suffer

In my opinion: Sir Peter Parker, chairman of the DTI's National Languages for Export Campaign and Institute of Management companion, says learn a language or suffer - Show me a company, large or small, with a language policy and I will show you a company

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Show me a company, large or small, with a language policy and I will show you a company with a future. I believe an awareness of the priority for language and cultural understanding is crucial in today's global markets. Yet, alas, astonishingly only one in six make the effort.

There is a wealth of research evidence to show that greater export success can be achieved if a company develops a strategy in advance and systematically implements it. The message is as obvious as a kick in the pants - you need to know the local business practices and have a degree of linguistic competence if you want to deal as effectively in Bangkok, Bogota or Berlin as in Birmingham, Brisbane or Boston. Of course, globalisation means much more than exporting: it involves cross-border, cross-culture risks and opportunities: witness the Vodafone/Mannesmann deal in the headlines recently, huge but not exceptional these days.

My contention is twofold: firstly, globalisation is more than economics; it is a human social process as well, de-traditionalising and de-nationalising societies all over the world. Secondly, to cope with it, English, like patriotism, is not enough. It was a wise Indian colleague of mine who warned me, years ago: 'Remember in India when you are negotiating a contract you are negotiating a culture. When you make a deal you are making a relationship.' I have learnt since that is not only true in India but anywhere. Not all managers of course can be linguists, but all can try to develop a sensitivity and respect for the language and culture of others.

Until relatively recently, business has been slow to respond to this global challenge. Why? Once upon a time the British were in fact famously good at languages. Now we are notoriously poor. Why? It can't be that we are congenitally incapable of learning the lingo of these damn foreigners. Four hundred years ago the first Queen Elizabeth spoke seven languages fluently. We must have been language-competent in the days when we were building and running the biggest empire the world has ever known. But then we rested on our imperial laurels and, even when Pax Britannica faded, the use of English went on spreading wider still and wider under Pax Americana. English, or rather broken English, is now the lingua franca of business in this new century. That may be a national asset but it is not any longer a unique advantage. Global competition knows English and other languages too. Our complacency must bring constant comfort to our competition. However, at long last there is the good news, clear signs that we are snapping out of our traditional trance.

The National Languages for Export Campaign is one. Five years ago it was set up to alert British business to the importance of using the language of the customer and to provide practical help to companies that needed it. As chairman of the Campaign, I have to say the task is not as simple as it sounds. Last year 44% of UK companies said they had experienced language barriers, nearly one-third had in fact hit cultural buffers. This must add up to sizeable lost opportunities and trade.

But there are winners, and the annual Language for Export Awards celebrate their achievement in a way we hope might inspire others. Each year we have a nationwide search for examples of enterprises with the wit and imagination to match their international ambitions with a language strategy. They all demonstrate the link that research has emphasised so long and often between success in international activities and a language policy with stamina. Often the big corporations have their own in-house skills and training resources; it is the smaller companies of fewer than 250 employees that need cost-effective and prompt assistance. Working within British Trade International, we have set up Lexas (Languages in Export Advisory Scheme) for SMEs that want to internationalise themselves. Lexas now has a take-up of around 150 companies a year. Our benchmarking research has shown a steady compound interest improvement in a number of UK companies gaining proficiency. But we are just part of a larger advance with others such as the Business Language Information Service and the Language National Training Organisation. And it is exhilarating to see, in parallel with support services, the innovations in language technologies that are really starting to make things easier: speech recognition, speech synthesis, translations and text processing - these are going to be routine tomorrow.

But business needs must be set in the wider context of the needs of our national educational process. I am sure that the results of the Nuffield Language Inquiry into language requirements over the next 20 years will provide us with new perspectives in which education, business and government can keep the big picture in focus.

Almost 15 years ago I argued for a national policy in my report, Speaking for the Future. I found at that time that the attitudes of business to the language priority were robust and resilient, short-term and dangerously short-sighted. We are measurably better now but we must be far better still. The sharper our gift of tongues, the sharper our competitive edge.

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