Everyone speaks English, don't they?

Everyone speaks English, don't they?

By Chris Lyne, subject group leader – languages

Everyone speaks English, don't they? Well, actually, no they don't. Did you know that only 6% of the global population are native English speakers and 75% speak no English at all? Maybe it's time to dust off your language skills, whether it's a rusty GCSE in French or the language your parents spoke at home, and give yourself a competitive edge in the jobs market.

It's not just teachers who are saying how important languages are. The Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) education and skills survey 2009 [1] highlighted the need for graduates with language and cross-cultural skills:

'Language skills are a valuable commodity in an increasingly globalised workplace. Employers place a premium on staff who can communicate at least conversationally in a foreign language – particularly where this is coupled with an understanding of the culture of overseas business environments. This linguistic proficiency helps firms consolidate their relationship with existing overseas trade partners and develop contacts in new markets.'

You don't need to be an expert linguist to be able to help your company or potential employer to expand overseas. Just being able to exchange pleasantries or show an understanding of and an interest in their culture and traditions will give you a head start over other competitors. Just think how pleased you feel when someone really takes an interest in you and your life.

What is surprising in the CBI report is that companies are concerned about the lack of language competence of the UK workforce:

'Seventy-two percent of UK international trade is with non-English speaking countries – but it is estimated that only one in ten in the UK workforce can speak a foreign language.'

Can we really claim to be globally competitive if most of the UK workforce don't have one of the basic skills for international communication? In a global economy UK graduates are competing against applicants from all over the world. Most graduates from other countries can offer at least one foreign language in addition to another specialist subject area.

Admittedly, English is widely spoken in the business world, but wouldn't it be great to dispel the myth that English people are bad at speaking other languages and surprise your overseas customers with a few words or sentences in their language?

Learning a language is like any other skill – the more you practise, the better you get. According to Thomas Edison (of light bulb fame) 'Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!'

In these days of easy and quick access to resources in any language, there really are no excuses not to at least have a go. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results for you and your business.


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