Welsh firms should become more language aware

Rebecca Lees examines the need for greater foreign languages skills in Wales if we are to compete with the emerging economies

Businesses in Wales need to tackle a shortage in languages skills if they are to compete globally with emerging economies. Many SMEs in Wales have not grasped the importance of recruiting staff with a practical knowledge of other languages and cultures. There is still a sense that ‘everybody speaks English’. Yet 75 per cent of our trade is carried out with non-English speaking countries.

Stephen Hagen, Professor of Multi-lingual Business Communications at Newport University, says there is a scarcity of linguists in Wales. He has led research which shows that SMEs in Wales could increase export sales by 44.5 per cent if they had a language strategy. Despite this the take-up rate of modern foreign languages at GCSE level has declined to 27 per cent in Wales. Earlier this month Swansea University announced plans to reduce the size of its languages department. The resulting outcry – including criticism from author John le Carré that the move was “contrary to all good sense” – highlights the contradiction faced by businesses in Wales. As Professor Hagen puts it:

“The UK is near the bottom of the European league in terms of its awareness of language and export strategy. The understanding is that English is the major global business language but this is not necessarily the position taken by most of the trading partners. The position for us in Wales is that we have the advantage of using English but it makes us more vulnerable as it limits our ability. Most of our competitor countries have two, three or four languages in their companies. In the UK we tend to have English and maybe one other. One argument is that we should be learning more foreign languages, which is true, and encouraging businesses to be more effective at exporting and removing cultural barriers.”

Professor Hagen points to the four elements of language management in successful export companies:

1.    The company has a language strategy.

2.    It employs native speakers.

3.    It recruits staff with language skills.

4.    It employs professional translators and interpreters.

“Companies with up to 250 employees in Wales could well achieve more than 40 per cent higher export sales if they adopted a language strategy along these lines,” says Prof Hagen. “Companies that are language-aware are far more likely to be successful exporters. It is important for Welsh companies to hire people with language skills. People who are bilingual are better placed to become trilingual or quadrilingual. We have to get more people who are language proficient in Wales. Bilingualism is a good step towards internationalism.”

The need for more languages candidates has been seen first-hand by Newport-based recruitment agency Concentric Consulting. “There are a lot of companies in Wales which have relocated from Bristol or London and they are finding a real shortage in the candidates they need,” says its managing director Natalie Rosato. “One of our clients distributes car parts from Germany, France and Spain, while we also work with a Spanish company which distributes across the world. More and more languages candidates are needed in this area, as the majority of people applying are from London. In particular, there is a real shortage in trilingual candidates. Companies need candidates who can speak English, Welsh and another language.”

The Welsh Assembly is combating the decline in language learning with the Making Languages Count action plan. Education Minister Leighton Andrews says:

“Learning a foreign language is a skill for life. In the world of work, knowledge of languages helps economic growth and business competitiveness through improved understanding of the business environment and intercultural understanding. Through this action plan I hope to see increased take-up of modern foreign languages, improved levels of attainment and more flexible access to high quality courses.”

As part of the action plan, a new NVQ Business Languages course is now available to students choosing their Year 10 options. The NVQ was successfully piloted in Wales last year and combines practical languages learning with a range of skills needed in the workplace. NVQ Business Languages is delivered in partnership with CILT Cymru, the National Centre for Languages based in Cardiff Bay, which has a key role in implementing Making Languages Count. CILT Cymru recently launched its Business Language Champions Awards to facilitate links between schools and business. This aims to inspire young people to see the relevance of language skills in the global economy and equip students with the international communication and employability skills needed for their future careers. CILT Cymru’s Language Teaching Adviser Claire Parry said:

“The growth of the global economy is creating new market opportunities for Wales. But we are currently facing a shortage of people who can combine language skills with other specialisms, such as engineering, law and marketing. Without the language and intercultural skills needed to compete successfully with the rapidly developing economies of Brazil, Russia, China and India, businesses in Wales will face increasing challenges in adapting to this competition. The British Chambers of Commerce state that export businesses that are proactive in their use of language and cultural skills achieve on average 45 per cent more sales than companies who conduct their business solely in English. So it is important to the future economic success of Wales that our schools produce competent linguists and that businesses in Wales continue to recruit these young people.”

Rebecca Lees is a former South Wales Echo journalist who now freelances for national publications and corporate clients.

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