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Language Skills Are Not GREAT Britain

Deficient language skills cost UK exporters 3.5% of GDP. French is the leading language in demand.

Following a previous blog post about the insufficient English skills of French executives, I have decided to cross the Channel this time around, in order to explore the French skills of our beloved neighbours. Unfortunately, in spite of 20 years of Chunnel, the UK still has to bridge the French gap.


The cost of poor language skills for British businesses

According to a 2013 British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) survey, 70% of exporters had no relevant foreign language ability. Professor James Foreman-Peck estimated the cost of deficient language skills to be around 3.5% of GDP. As such, it can be considered as a "tax on growth".

A 2013 report published by a dedicated Committee on Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) confirmed the issue of language skills, referring to several recent surveys and reports from the UKTI, the BCC or the IOE on the subject.


SMEs should define a language management strategy (LMS)

When assessing the language and cultural issues, SMEs should define and integrate an LMS into a wider export approach. An LMS should be tailored to suit the specific situation of a company in terms of objectives, needs, budget and potential export markets.

Consequently, each company should implement a relevant mix of outsourcing to translation professionals and in-house solutions, whether it is language learning for the current staff or recruiting linguistically skilled individuals on the local job market, foreign nationals, or postgraduate students. 


Bridging the French gap: a top priority for UK exporters 

Business investments should focus on languages associated with the most significant economic benefits. That is why French should obviously be a top priority. According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s 2013 Education and Skills Survey, French (49%) is the leading language in demand. This figure confirms the importance of France as a business partner and UK’s 4th export market in 2013.

The need to bridge the French gap is even more blatant since French ranks 3rd on the list of the 10 most important languages for the UK’s future in the British Council’s 2013 Languages for the Future Report. 


A need to improve education

More generally, there is a need to improve language learning in UK schools. French is already the most widely taught foreign language in the UK education system. However, a 2011 European Survey on Language Competences by the EC rated English 15-year-olds as the worst in reading, writing and listening in French.

There seems to be a double problem, both in terms of quality and quantity, at various levels in the UK education system:

- according to the British Council and the CfBT Education Trust’s “language trends”, a quarter of England’s primary schools “report that GCSE is the highest level of linguistic competence held by any member of their staff”.

- there was a 10% drop in entries for French A-level in 2013, compared with the previous year.

- according to an analysis of Ucas course listings by Education Guardian over the past 15 years, there are 40% fewer universities at which to study French.

Several initiatives try to tackle the issue:

- from this September, the UK national curriculum includes compulsory teaching of languages from the age of seven, instead of 11.

- the Higher Education Funding Council for England has recently announced an additional £3.1m to support language degree programmes.

- Routes into Languages, a consortium of 80 universities, promotes “the take-up of languages and student mobility”.

- Speak to the Future, a campaign for languages funded by the British Academy and Routes into Languages, highlights the importance of languages. 

It remains to be seen if and when these initiatives will trigger a positive trend towards an improvement of language learning in the UK, and to which extent they will have an impact on British exports.


Over to You

Is the language barrier an obstacle to the exporting potential of your company?

Did your company define a language management strategy?

Let me know in the comments below!


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