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Two thirds of UK firms ‘need language skills to succeed’

As the UK enters an era of improved economic health and renewed trading activity, a new survey has drawn attention to how language skills will be fundamental to the country’s future prosperity.

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which collaborates with publishing house Pearson to produce the Education and Skills Survey once per year, almost two thirds (65%) of firms feel they need workers or contractors with some degree of fluency in foreign languages to succeed.

This should, of course, come as no surprise. With the economic recovery beginning to take effect across some of the UK’s key trade partners in Europe, and with fast-growing markets such as China and Latin America taking centre stage in global commerce, it’s more important than ever that we have language skills at our fingertips.

Even the fact that English is still often regarded as the world’s de facto language for business won’t be enough to stall this shift for much longer. As Mark Anderson, managing director for Pearson UK, put it: “A company with employees who can communicate with some proficiency in the language of clients, customers and suppliers has a big advantage in the fast-growing markets across the globe.”

The results in depth

Despite the majority of firms telling the CBI and Pearson they had identified a need for foreign language skills, when they were asked whether this had informed their recruiting strategies or not, the results varied. This could indicate that some organisations are having difficulty sourcing candidates with the skills they require, or that plans to expand into new markets are still in the pipeline and not yet influencing recruitment policies.

Only 6% of respondents called language skills an “essential core competence for our work”, for example, but a further 12% acknowledged they would need multilingual employees within the next couple of years.

Others said they would look positively on candidates with language skills because they would prove helpful in building relations with overseas contacts (cited by 28%) and assist internal staff mobility (16%), but at present they considered these abilities a nicety more than a necessity.

The concern here, of course, is that with language learning on the wane in UK schools, these respondents could end up discovering a dearth of available talent when the opportunity to expand does arrive. One remedy might be taking recourse to outsourced translation and interpreting services rather than putting employees to work on projects that require language skills.

The most important languages

Compared with the 2012 and 2013 versions of the CBI and Pearson Education and Skills Survey, 2014 saw some interesting fluctuations in the languages British businesses considered useful or important.

For the most part, the results ticked upwards. 50% of firms felt French language skills were indispensable, compared with 49% last year. German saw a more significant increase, from 45% to 49%, while Spanish shot up a whole ten percentage points from 34% to 44% – altogether, an impressive show of optimism for trading conditions on the continent.

Moving further afield, almost a third (31%) of respondents cited Mandarin as a useful language to have in their respective arsenals. This compares to 28% in 2013 and 25% in 2012, and comes as a testament to the ever-growing importance of the Chinese economy on the global stage.

Perhaps just as interesting was the fact that 23% of firms considered Arabic an invaluable tongue for business, compared with just 16% a year ago – a result that highlights how close relations with the Arab world are beginning to be seen as a key business imperative in the UK.

Of course, if there’s one thing that the report re-emphasises, it’s that a wide range of languages are well regarded for their ability to support British businesses as they expand around the world. By extension, skilled translators and interpreters are only growing more valued year on year.

With that in mind, CBI deputy director-general Katja Hall provided a word of warning: “The jury remains out as to whether recent government initiatives can help spur a resurgence in language learning.

“Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language.”

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