One of the biggest barriers facing UK companies with the potential to export overseas is a lack of foreign language skills, according to a study undertaken by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). The lobby group believes the remedy for this lies in compulsory language lessons for children as young as seven.
The BCC is not alone in thinking education is the balm for this skills shortage, as a separate study from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Pearson revealed that many UK businesses believe Britain’s school system is failing to produce enough people with foreign language skills to keep up with demand.
Katja Hall, director-general of the CBI, says one in five British schools reports a persistently low uptake of languages among students and suggests the country has yet to feel the impact of government initiatives designed to stimulate a revival in language learning. She believes that young people should be made fully aware of the benefits that language skills can give them in terms of their careers.
According to Mark Anderson, managing director of Pearson UK, although English is traditionally seen as the international language of business, any organisation wishing to take its product or service to the international stage must be proficient in the language of its clients. He added that foreign language skills will be of a particular advantage in fast-growing and emerging markets across the globe.
John Longworth, director-general for the BCC, believes businesses in the UK’s service sector have the potential to close the country’s trade gap by exporting overseas. However, he feels this is currently an unattainable idea as the UK lacks a workforce equipped with strong foreign language skills.
This skills shortage is obviously not the only barrier to success, as the BCC’s report identified regulatory and funding issues as obstacles as well, but it is a problem that can be addressed with relative ease.
Mr Longworth believes a culture change is needed in the UK when it comes to international trade. Learning language skills at a younger age means the next generation will have a global mindset, subsequently helping them in business.
The director-general feels it is the responsibility of the government to invest more money into Britain’s overseas business networks as this would bolster the existing support available to help UK firms trade on an international level.
He feels there is no reason why the UK should not be matching the level of export support the country’s international competitors can achieve. Mr Longworth used Germany as an example, as the nation spends ten times more on its bilateral Chamber Network compared to Britain.
The results of the BCC’s survey of over 1,565 UK-based service sector firms reveal that around 18% are on the brink of exporting, they simply need a gentle nudge in the right direction. Of those polled, 26% claimed language and cultural differences are currently standing in their way of success. To address this issue, the BCC wishes to see the government introduce compulsory foreign language lessons for children aged between seven and 16 to equip them with the skills businesses desperately need and a better knowledge of the world in which they live.
Mr Longworth believes young people should be encouraged to experience international trade, in order for the UK to nurture a generation of exporters. Vocational subjects, such as foreign languages, can ensure they are equipped with the right skills to allow them to take advantages of the wide-range of opportunities in today’s globalised world.
The BCC believes that the service sector can also help itself by looking beyond the UK’s traditional export markets. Although Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas are areas that certainly need to be focused on, the scope should be widened to include Africa. The continent has recently been identified by the International Monetary Fund as being one of the world’s best economic growth prospects, as there has been an increased demand for services in countries such as Nigeria.