Two-thirds of exporters 'don't require local fluency'

A survey suggests when we're trying to do business abroad, Brits are lazy about learning the local language. But that's all set to change...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 03 Feb 2012
Here’s a a surprising one: new research has found that a mere third of firms looking to expand abroad require their overseas operations managers to be fluent in the local language. We know us Brits are guilty of linguistic arrogance - but this rather puts what education secretary Michael Gove calls the UK’s ‘perverse pride’ in its own language (or, more accurately, its perverse laziness about bothering to learn anyone else’s) into perspective...

According to the research of 2,700 business owners by workspace provider Regus, more than 40% of businesses don’t think fluency in the local language is ‘critical’ to success overseas. Although Regus does concede that they've been forced into a corner on the issue: after all, many say they just can’t find enough candidates with the right language skills. That’s reflected by the percentage of companies choosing to employ locals when they go abroad, rather than one of their UK employees: nearly 60%. Which poses its own problems: trying to explain company culture to an employee several thousand miles away is always going to be a challenge.

If they do employ Brits, businesses’s track record on briefing their overseas managers-to-be on local culture isn’t good: just 44% of firms do so. Which could be critical - as we all know, in some countries, simply handling a business card the wrong way can break a deal.

As Stephan Chambers, the MBA programme director at Saïd Business School pointed out, as the UK economy comes increasingly to rely on exports, businesses that charge into new countries without bothering to learn the local language - or, indeed, its customs - will no longer cut it. ‘Despite the near ubiquity of English in world business, it’s clear that there will be an increasing premium on managers who speak Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Russian as the centres of business power move inexorably towards the new economic powerhouses of China and elsewhere.’

Which suggests that UK schools should start getting a lot more serious about teaching languages. About time, too.
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