Small businesses are losing out because they have poor linguistic skills. When will they learn that English is not the only international business language?
Bad translations are often amusing but potentially damaging to business.
Take this example from a hotel brochure advertising holidays in the French Alps: 'The hotel has a heated of course swimming pool. Thus even by thunder weather dare to dive in and in case of likely congestion, the barmaid owning proper diplomas will help.' All very funny, until it's your brochure being read.
In business a lack of linguistic ability can be fatal. Scare stories are legion, but the most poignant involves a UK manufacturer that went bust last year. When the official receivers looked through the paperwork, they found a letter in a filing cabinet, written in German. No-one at the firm had understood it, so it had been filed away with other miscellaneous correspondence. It turned out to be a purchase order big enough to have saved the firm from insolvency.
The Nuffield Foundation has just launched a national inquiry to establish the UK's capacity for foreign languages. It doesn't take a professor of linguistics to predict that the results will not be complimentary. The problem is that most bosses still don't care, relying on the old excuse that English is the international business language.
Small businesses need to sit up and take notice. In a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) survey, small and medium-size businesses cited language barriers as a bigger obstacle to export than the much-hyped, super-strong pound. Research by accountants Grant Thornton shows that only 38% of British companies employing up to 500 people have an executive able to negotiate in another language. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) has found that a third of UK exporters miss out on trade opportunities because of poor language skills.
As stories of export success filter through, however, the DTI, Training and Enterprise Councils and language schools are reporting increasing interest from small businesses in their training services. 'People are realising that if the British are monolingual at higher levels, potential business will go elsewhere,' says Reinier Salverda, professor of Dutch at University College London. 'More and more people are coming to us,' confirms Paul Moran of the Language Training Centre in Liverpool. 'They know business is about relationships and contacts and you can't have either if you can't talk your customer's language.'
Moran echoes the beliefs of companies such as Canford Group, a Tyne & Wear mail-order audio equipment supplier, which started receiving a number of unsolicited enquiries from abroad around eight years ago. The company used a translation agency to produce foreign language versions of its 850-page catalogue and recruited new staff with language skills. 'It seemed silly not to be able to convert those overseas enquiries into orders,' says Canford chairman Hugh Morgan Williams. The company also joined forces with Sunderland City Council on a scheme to boost linguistic skills within its workforce.
But how do you persuade employees to learn a language? 'Our employees know it will make their jobs easier and, most importantly, they know it will help them to get on in the company,' says Morgan Williams. Getting on means promotion and promotion means more pay. It works. In the last two years, Canford's turnover has risen from £12 million to £17.5 million. A third of its total turnover is now made up of exports.
For a company that has so many staff with language skills, it may seem strange that Canford still uses an external translator for its catalogues. But this policy comes recommended by experts in the field. The DTI has seen the alarming consequences of small and medium-size businesses using 'cheap, unregulated services' or, worse still, attempting to do the job in-house without having the requisite fluency.
If a translator is not bilingual, they should be translating into their native tongue. The DTI recommends translators who belong to a professional body, such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, which monitors the qualifications and competence of its members. It also advises companies to appoint someone to buy translation services and recommends listening to feedback from translation users as a means of quality control.
The alternative is to employ a native speaker. This was the route taken by Ann Miller, managing director of Simpson Photo Imaging, a small ceramics decorating business based in Stoke-on-Trent. Keen to tap the opportunities offered by a larger export market and anxious to counter European competition in the wake of the euro, Miller recruited a linguist who speaks nine languages, three fluently.
'As a small business, we thought we couldn't really afford him, but he is invaluable,' she says. 'He translates everything we need to trade with other countries and he's a huge asset at exhibitions.' Simpson's sales staff are also now learning languages, which should be beneficial for the company's rapid expansion in exports. In particular, exports to Russia, which made up 8% of turnover in 1996, now account for over 30%.
While it helps to learn a few basics of a customer's language, even non-linguists can export, says Moran. When Peebles Transformers of Edinburgh won a contract to supply a Tianhuangping Pumped Storage site in China with six generators, the firm organised a multimedia training package for its staff in Mandarin. It used a local computer-science student, gathered audio-visual material on site and hired a local Chinese employee for translations and voice-overs.
If the worst comes to the worst, small businesses have to resort to English but should bear in mind a few ground rules. When dealing with customers, you should avoid colloquialisms and idioms, speak slowly and give the customer time to absorb what has been said. Do not get impatient if you are asked to repeat a phrase. Avoid complex sentence structures including double or phrasal verbs - 'develop' a proposal, not 'work up' a proposal.
Finally, don't assume that a smile or nod from a foreign colleague or customer denotes agreement. They might be too polite or too embarrassed to say 'I don't understand'.
Whatever a small business does to improve the linguistic skills of its workforce, successful firms agree that the most common obstacle to trade with non-English speakers is fear of a new language and culture. Overcome the fear and the world could be your market.
WHERE THE TONGUE-TIED CAN FIND HELP AND ADVICE
Association for Language Learning: 01788 546443
Association of Language Excellence Centres: 0171 222 0666
Association of Translation Companies: 01483 456486
Centre of Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT): 0171 379 5101
DTI translation advice: 0171 215 2060
Institute of Linguists: 0171 940 3100
Institute of Translation and Interpreting: 0171 713 7600
International Association of Conference Interpreters: 0171 284 3112
Language and Culture for Business Programme, University of Luton: 01582 743969
Language Learning Centre, Merseyside: 0151 794 2796
Languages in Export Advisory Scheme (LEXAS): 01203 694484
Milton Keynes Language Centre: 01908 886329
National Business Language Information Service (c/o CILT): 0171 379 5131
National Languages for Export Campaign: 0171 215 8146
Overseas Trade Services Hotline: 0345 567765.