Languages as a pathway to global citizenship and employability

by Professor Dame Julia King

28 Nov 2014

Through its Language Programme, the Academy is seeking to provide a range of perspectives on languages, as well as to showcase relevant research that our Fellowship is engaged in.

British businesses with ‘growth potential’ are those that see the opportunity beyond UK shores to expand and grow. Such businesses will have proven their expertise in product development and receptiveness to customer insights. These newcomers and would-be global brands get what it takes to grow and put in place the strategies necessary for success.

But in one crucial area many UK businesses might have an Achilles heel. Languages. The belief that English is the language of business, so no other language is necessary. Whilst there is no denying that English is the fastest spreading language in history, driven onwards by the internet and other media, and the truth that employees working in a multi-national environment need to be equipped with English language skills, English alone is not good enough.

In June this year the CBI surveyed 300 members and two thirds said they preferred and needed staff with foreign language skills, with Arabic and Mandarin growing in importance. The survey suggested that ‘as ambitious firms look to break into new fast growing markets’, languages are more vital than ever.

Yet companies face a growing challenge when seeking to recruit for language skills from within the UK. The EU ‘European Survey’ on language competence in 2013 revealed that only 9% of English teenagers demonstrate any foreign language skills, and many of these it is because they are native speakers of that language. The average across Europe was 42%, with Sweden leading on 82%. So is business saying one thing, and doing another? Graduates are keen to be employable, yet the number of students choosing language degrees has dropped by almost half in a decade. Does this mean young people are picking up a message that in reality monolingual English is good enough?

As Vice-Chancellor of Aston University I am very aware that business looks for a range of skill sets, including team working and the ability to demonstrate a global outlook, as well as the specific competences of their sector or specialism. Whilst these skills are not the sole preserve of language graduates, they are often driven by language competence and the cultural intelligence it brings. This may explain why the number of students ‘enrolled’ on institution-wide language programmes, in addition to their core degree programmes, in UK universities, has risen to almost 54,000. These programmes are generally free of charge and supplementary.

At Aston we offer seven languages, with high levels of take up for each. This trend for a wider range of university students to pursue their language education is encouraging and suggests a growing awareness of international opportunities. But the country also needs high level language specialists in order to develop international capacity and agility. As more and more citizens around the world speak English, speaking only English is not sufficient.

We as a nation will lose competitive advantage if we do not all embrace and prioritise languages as part of a global mindset. As far back as 2009, Professor Peck in research for BIS proposed that deficient language skills cost the UK economy around £48 billion per annum, acting as a ‘tax on growth’ especially in markets such as China, Turkey and South America.

The recent British Academy ‘Born Global’ study of employers sets out a new approach, focussed on the importance of language skills in giving employees the ‘ability to recognise, understand and interpret cultural difference’, which leads to a greater ability to ‘resolve problems and make decisions’.

Universities’ institution-wide language programmes are vital to help every graduate become a linguist, to ensure they can manage any type of activity in future employment, from a conversation with a local client, to interpreting customer insight. In this context, being multi-lingual is a business asset even in the largest organisation where the lingua franca of international conversation may currently be English.

At a recent senior management away day, we listened to our Head of Careers and Placements tell us that in the conversations she had with major employers of Aston graduates, across sectors from finance to construction, the emerging theme was one of global citizenship. She recounted one discussion where a significant recruiter stated that the organisation only wanted to employ graduates who had experience of more than one culture, ideally demonstrated through a year abroad in a university or as an overseas work placement. Nearly one in three of our STEMM and Business Studies students who take a placement, now do so overseas.

So, to an extent, young people are working out for themselves that whilst English matters, it is not enough to only know English, and it is a distinct benefit to think of languages as a pathway to global citizenship and employability.

If you are running a company in export markets, or plan to move in this direction, when you next struggle with market share or when you encounter muddled business planning, the solution you seek may not be a new marketing strategy or a new product design. It may be that you need a language strategy that uses linguistic skills to direct business advantage.

Guardian Language Festival: The British Academy has partnered with the Guardian to raise the profile of language learning in the UK and celebrate the many benefits of foreign language skills for individuals and society. The second national Language Festival was launched on 17 October and will run until 28 November.

You can find out more about the 2014 Language Festival on the Guardian website, including how to join in existing events and host your own, and by following the #languagesdebate on Twitter.

Julia King is Vice-Chancellor of Aston University.

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