Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Read the label (carefully, before throwing it away)

When you buy a jar of jam, you know it’s jam inside because the label says so. You know what to expect from jam, you know what to do with the jam, and you know what the jam will do to you. The label forms the basis of our interaction with the jam. If we open the jar and find that there are processed peas inside, we will be disappointed, shocked and disappointed (whoever heard of peas on toast).

I suspect you are wondering where I’m going with this....

Every day we use linguistic labels (or categories) to simplify our interaction with the world: labels such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘gay’, ‘straight’. But there is a huge problem with such labels. There is no such thing as a gay man. Really there isn’t. Neither is there any such thing as a black man, or a French woman, or a straight Indian.

Now, before you start building a bonfire to encourage me to recant my evil ways, think about it a bit more carefully: how would you describe, for example a “gay man”? If you were to come up with a description (I won’t attempt to myself) would that description have any relevance to any real person? If it doesn’t resemble a real person, it is without value and meaningless. Let’s try an easier (for me) example. Describe a British man. It’s impossible – there are approximately 55 million people with British passports, of whom approximately 48% are male – call it 27 million male. If we assume 25% are under 16 years old (and therefore boys, not men – sorry, more labels) that leaves us with approximately 18 million people. I don’t have exact percentages for the ethnic break down, but there is no way you can describe a group of 18 million people of mixed ethnicity, backgrounds, religions, educations, wealth, status etc etc etc with any meaningful accuracy. In fact even if you take identical twins, you cannot describe them both in the same way accurately.

Having established that the label is hard to apply, we have to ask ourselves, why we use labels. The simplest answer is that we have to in order to simplify the way we interact with the world, but how we use them is significant. When we refer to a group of which we consider ourselves to be a member we use the words “we”, “us”, “our” etc. As an employed person, when I talk about people who have another job, I say “the unemployed”, “they” – the academic word for this is “othering”. In other words (no pun intended) we create the “other” group as one we are not part of. When I talk about “gay men” I am asserting that I am straight. When a government minister talks about terrorists, s/he is asserting that s/he is a legitimate member of society.

There is however another use of the labels, and one that to me is even more concerning – when someone stands up and says “we whites” or “we blacks” or “we gay” they are claiming for themselves rights and a status that is above, more important, more significant than the “others”

(Please note: I am not homophobic, racist, culturist, ethinicist, ageist, chauvinist etc etc – please read with an open mind!).

I fully accept that people who claim these labels have a strong argument for claiming that they have been on the receiving end of some very unpleasant, and in many cases lethal, behaviour – this cannot not ever be condoned. What I am suggesting, however, is that the use of labels is part (not all!) of the problem. When a minority group of any kind (to avoid stereotyping, lets invent a group called “minortorians”) uses their label they are setting themselves apart for special treatment. If minortorians instead avoided the label, and insisted on being counted as part of the “whole” (another very difficult subject) the discrimination would be reduced. Instead of campaigning for minortorian rights, the minortorian can campaign for general rights applied to every one equally. Society should be in integrated whole, not a fractious disjointed morass of individuals, each with his/her own label.

Let’s take this a step further: is a minortorian only a minortorian? Can’t a minortorian be a woman? or a man? or a parent? or unemployed, or employed, or Christian? or atheist? or big? or small? or fat? or thin? etc etc ad infinitum. I claim the label minortorian when it is advantageous to me to do so, but ignore the other categories that I fit into. I am assigned the label minortorian when someone else wants to generalise, stereotype or treat me differently. Who chooses which label is used when? Surely we should be more egalitarian and reduce the use of the labels, therefore becoming more evenhanded in our treatment of everyone without regard for the label. If a group feels that it is being unfairly treated, then surely the problem is with the designation – remove the designation and you remove the problem. One of the huge advances in discrimination and equality legislation in the UK has shown the value of this. Rather than affirmative action (where you are forced to proactively discriminate in favour of a group) you merely remove the category – thus you may not ask a potential employee about his or her marital/family status, you may not ask questions about race on a named application form etc.

We are not there yet and I have not tested this hypothesis in any way at all but surely we can see that, although not perfect, there is some common sense in this approach?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Increasing export sales in recession

James Foreman-Peck, in a report written for the Cardiff Business School, suggested that in 2005 British SME’s lost out on £3billion worth of export trading due to a lack of foreign language skills.

A Grant Thornton report in 2004 shows that less than one third of UK executives are capable of negotiating in more than one language.

A 2007 report under ELAN project showed that 11% of the businesses surveyed blamed the loss of a specific contract on lack of language skills – contracts with a value of between 8 and 25.3 million Euros.

All three of these studies suggested that SME’s and larger companies that have an active language policy fare better in international trading than those without.

Less than 16% of UK SME’s report that they have hired a native speaker to help with export to a specific market.

From these numbers we can deduce that British companies are relying on their native English and the fact that many non-English speaking countries do invest heavily in foreign language acquisition. There are very few companies of any size who can claim that business is growing in the current climate, and yet from these figures it appears that we are missing out on a trick! Selling at the moment is hard, and we need to be more aware than ever of anything that will improve sales.

There is a careful analysis to be made: how long will it take to learn the language well enough to be confident enough to take an active part in meetings in that language? How much will those lessons cost against the value of the contract and potential future business? What about the time involved – can the time spent learning the language, and not sitting at the desk looking for new business be justified?

So how long do you need? Well that mostly depends on how you learn, and not “how good” you are at languages! Learning for one or two hours a week may well take you a life time to get a basic conversational level, and the same may well be true for self-study. Each time you start a new lesson, or pick up the books/tapes you will spend almost as long remembering the previous lesson as you do learning new material. An unstructured visit to the target country is almost useless – speaking English is compulsory in most hotels, restaurants, and you would need to make a huge effort to practice the foreign language. The ideal solution is an intensive programme of study where you are immersed in the language for a large part of the day on a one to one basis, followed by an immediate opportunity to use the skills in a work environment. Two weeks of intensive tuition, followed by a week or so resting with a third week of tuition should provide a solid level of most European languages, and provided the language is used with native speakers in a business context, near-fluency is not hard to obtain quite quickly.