English has long been considered the lingua franca of business. But when Britain leaves the EU, the proportion of native English speakers inside the bloc will fall from 14 per cent to 1 per cent, and senior EU officials have questioned whether English should remain one of its official languages.
It’s important that UK businesses realise the value of equipping their employees with language skills to prepare them for the future. And now more than ever, the UK must heed the EU’s official language policy that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue”.
But why are languages so important, and how do employees gain the skills they need to communicate in more than one language in the workplace?
Outward-looking firms rely on a range of languages to communicate with customers, suppliers, overseas colleagues and partners. This ensures they can retain a competitive edge in a global market, and keep talented staff. Others should follow their example.
Language skills among employees are critical to breaking down communication barriers in the workplace. These skills, in turn, can lead to greater employee satisfaction, more effective cross-team collaboration, and higher rates of productivity. Relationships with customers can be enriched by interactions in their own language, increasing sales opportunities.
Language training enables employees to work in a company’s overseas locations more easily. This is particularly relevant to millennials, who seek international exposure more than any other generation in the workforce.
A regional problem
For most, language learning begins at school, but it shouldn’t end there.
A survey of over 5,000 business learners from companies that provide language training to employees found that under half thought the language courses they took at school adequately prepared them for today’s workplace.
European and American companies face the biggest challenge when it comes to a deficiency in language skills, according to the survey. Workers in Europe had the highest number of language course takers in school – 90 per cent – but only 47 per cent felt adequately prepared by those courses for work. In contrast, 70 per cent of respondents from the Middle East and Africa and 68 per cent from Asia-Pacific thought they were properly prepared.
Practice makes perfect
Confidence is central to feeling prepared to use another language in a business context.
The more conversation practice a learner engages in, the more their confidence will be boosted. This means immersing yourself in the language as much possible, by reading foreign language newspapers and listening to the radio when possible.
That said, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It often is better to concentrate intensely for short periods than to try to consume the language passively through hours of exposure at a time.
The real thing
There is no substitute for authentic conversation with natives, or speakers who are proficient in the language you’re trying to learn. And playing games, rather than trying to engineer conversation awkwardly and artificially, is a useful way to stay engaged.
When it comes to learning grammar and vocabulary, it is important to go at your own speed, and find out which way suits you best. Learning by rote is often not the most efficient method, and is likely to bore you quickly.
Exercises which encourage you to visualise the word you’re trying to remember or make use of visual aids often work better than trying to memorise vocabulary from a list.