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.