UK: Why Lucas has seen the light on language learning.

UK: Why Lucas has seen the light on language learning. - Other Europeans are talking to one another. We need to join in, argues Peter Wilsher.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Other Europeans are talking to one another. We need to join in, argues Peter Wilsher.

Governments can solemnly confer, bureaucrats can attempt to impose common standards, bankers can unify currencies and trading practices until they are blue in the face, but "Europe" will still remain a fragile and artificial concept until its 350 million people are willing to think of themselves, and each other, as all truly "European". It has taken a long time, but at last there are signs, even in these parochial offshore islands, that the process has at last begun.

Lucas Industries is the 276th largest company in Europe and only ranks 110th even here in Britain. But it one of the first to start seeing its future as fundamentally international, and systematically to pursue that perception at all levels.

The change can be seen most basically - and strikingly - in the corporate attitude to foreign languages. Five years ago, Lucas, like most UK institutions, looked on linguistic ability as a bit of a luxury: occasionally useful in the export department, or when the chairman had to entertain important visitors, but certainly not central to anyone's career advancement.

All that has now changed. Eighteen months ago Lucas began to include language-learning in the Continuing Education and Training Programme which is open to all its 57,000-strong workforce, and the response has been remarkable. The opportunity has been avidly seized everywhere it is on offer, and in the Automotive Electronics division, where the idea was pioneered, almost one in four of the staff are currently committed to extending their communicative skills.

Each day, usually straight after work, groups of senior managers, secretaries and shopfloor people drop their hierarchical distinctions and get together for an intensive hour of conversational French or advanced technical Spanish and German. The firm pays all the course costs, plus books and video hire and the employees are required only to volunteer their own time. So far, the drop-out rate has been minimal and many have already successfully negotiated their first London Chamber of Commerce exams. Ten dedicated individuals have embarked on Japanese (though so far only spoken, not the more difficult written variety).

The courses are organised, either on site or in college, by Birmingham's city-funded Brasshouse Language Centre, whose spectacular growth is itself a strong indication of the way the West Midlands is expanding its horizons. Although the area knows it will be soon exposed to tough new competition, with specialities like engineering and ceramics particularly under threat, the general attitude is that the single market is to be treated as a stimulating, but sustainable challenge. If that means speaking the way they do beyond the Channel, so be it, and the Brasshouse registration figures, after five years of steady increase, jumped by a further 43% last September. No fewer than 3,500 pupils a week are now regularly attending, and the number of specifically business-related classes has doubled.

It would be quite wrong to see this in terms of dusty classrooms and lists of irregular verbs. Brasshouse, under its highly entrepreneurial principal, John Langran, is a vibrant and imaginative affair. To accommodate its inflated intake it has had to colonise a neighbouring mosque, a synagogue and, afor a short period, a spare double-decker bus. But however strained its resources, it continues to offer a daunting range of language services, from basic translation and interpretation up to crash courses specially tailored for the sales team that is suddenly called up to discuss numerically-controlled machine tools in fluent Portuguese. When necessary it can lay on specialists in 27 languages, including Bulgarian, and when I spoke to him recently, Langran was urgently seeking to add Ukrainian to his stable.

Even more important, though, is the opportunity Brasshouse offers for people to meet their opposite numbers. It attracts a stream of visitors anxious to brush up enough English to do business here, and every opportunity is taken to involve them and the locals in fruitful interaction. For example 20 of Russia's new entrepreneurs have just been over for a fortnight's visit, getting their full share of Black Country hospitality, and 20 Brummies, from a variety of backgrounds, are off shortly to make the return trip. One of the City's driving school proprietors has already been over to Moscow and St Petersburg, to scout out the potential for a string of Russian Schools of Motoring.

This is the start of a process which is rapidly gathering pace among our Continental partners: the realigning of personal and working lives to take advantage of the informal Europe-without-frontiers which is evolving almost in spite of the politicians and Eurocrats.

Language, naturally, is one of the key elements here: in the EC as a whole, 83% of young men and women in the 20-24 age bracket now speak at least one second tongue, against only 51% for the over-25s. In both cases the laggardly British and Irish must be holding down the averages, but initiatives like Brasshouse suggest that we may soon start catching up.

Communication, though, is only a first step. What is driving the "Europeanisation" trend is the realisation, among managers, professionals and a widening band of assorted specialists that to be effective they must work on an international canvas. Whether it is doctors fighting communicable disease, policemen trying to secure both ends of the Channel Tunnel, or chemists combatting air pollution, the problems outflank any legalistic notion of borders.

Inside the original Common Market core - France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux trio - a string of studies demonstrates the ever-deepening convergence of living standards, life expectancies, political aspirations and consumption patterns. These embrace such diverse items as the frequency that people travel outside their "own" country, the number of "foreign" friends, and regular contacts that respondents report, and the eagerness with which they accept exotic products and unfamiliar ways of doing things. Reinforced by parallel movements in the social framework, where the length of the working week, holiday entitlements, health and safety rules all seem to be moving more or less into line, this is the real cement that is binding the EC heartland together, and it is hard to believe that even the most sceptical peripheralists will be able to hold out for long.

In a French opinion poll, teenagers were asked whether they felt closer to German youngsters or French adults. Six out of 10 opted for the German alternative, and only 27% were prepared to put nationality ahead of age. It may soon be time for MORI or NOP to try a similar exercise in the West Midlands.

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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