PracticeConsultingLanguage Skills – Say it loud and clear in a foreign language.

Language Skills - Say it loud and clear in a foreign language.

Foreign languages always seem to be someone else's expertise .Even in these days of a single market, where polyglot talents might open doors, the idea that any British executive might choose from any of his or her six languages, and use the one that gives greatest commercial advantage is still, well, foreign.

According to recent research undertaken by the Department of Trade & Industry, languages are seen as at least a partial barrier to exporting by nearly half (44%) of the companies polled, and local culture is seen as a partial barrier by 30%. Seven per cent even said they had lost business because of language or culture difficulties, and the DTI reckons: ‘This is almost certainly an understatement of the real loss.’

Just as language is a key to culture, the converse applies: failing to speak the language of those you are doing business with not only creates a communication gap but also reinforces the culture barrier. Ironically, Brits who have learned a foreign language often speak better English as a result, and many foreign companies prefer to employ a non-English speaker who has learned English, rather than a native English speaker.

Micron Sprayers is a small company, employing 50 people, and conducting 97% of its business in French speaking countries, largely sub-Saharan Africa, selling agricultural products for crop protection. Technical director John Clayton went to evening classes in French to supplement what he already knew and found it increased his confidence substantially: ‘It made me feel more confident about the job,’ he says.

‘Even if you are not doing business in a foreign language, it is important to be able to converse with people. It breaks down barriers.’

In fact, the sales team and technical support people conduct much of their business in French, Spanish and Arabic. Some people are recruited with the language ability, others are trained and learn on the job. ‘We operate in 90 countries,’ says Clayton. ‘Language capability is critical.’

Micron Sprayers is creating a multilingual website, including a technical manual in several languages, and last year won a DTI National Language for Export Award.

Once you have recognised the need for language training, singled out those who would best benefit, and decided on which languages are required, the next task is to choose the most appropriate means of learning.

The most flexible and accessible way to learn a language is on tape.

It allows students to choose when and where they tune in: during lunch breaks, in the car, on the train, or at home with a glass of wine. Those who have the time and discipline can become almost surgically attached to their tapes, those trying to juggle a job, with a family and acquiring another language will probably work rather differently.

Says general manager of Linguaphone Richard Avery: ‘For those needing to learn a lot, and fast, tapes are not the answer. But if, for example, a company is merging with a Danish organisation and learning Danish would improve an employee’s career prospects, then self-study comes into its own.’

Linguaphone’s standard level comprises cassettes, study and exercise books and instructions.

These are available in 30 languages, ranging from French to Finnish and aim to teach people up to 2,500 words of active vocabulary.

Unusually, Linguaphone also offers a support service, accessible by phone, fax or e-mail. And in March the company is launching an online service, allowing students to log on to the website and download advice.

Advice from a human being has proven to be necessary to even the most enthusiastic students using cassettes. According to Professor Stephen Hagen, consultant to the DTI’s National Languages for Export Campaign, many potential linguists get Chapter 4 syndrome: they get to a point where they need help and then give up. This may explain why there are few cassettes providing advanced tuition.

Tapes are also unspontaneous: there is a world of difference between listening to an Italian acting excited on a tape, and dealing with an excited Italian in a boardroom.

Nonetheless, tapes are a good starting point and other possibilities include Berlitz Business Cassette Pack in French, Italian, Spanish or German, comprising tape, audioscript and comprehensive business phrase book; and MacMillans Business Breakthrough in French and German provides three cassettes and books. There is also level 2 in both languages and French 3.

BBC’s Means Business course consists of videos, cassettes and books in French, German and Spanish and aims to instruct business travellers in business and social language. But the courses are aimed at companies (the BBC is not licensed to sell to individuals).

For those going for total immersion or other one-to-one training, the first challenge is how to find and assess a language school. According to Julian de la Motte Harrison, head of foreign languages at Regent Linguaphone there are questions you should ask to ensure you get what you want and that teaching is up to a certain standard.

Is the school connected with an outside organisation such as ALEC (Association of Language Excellence Centres)? Are tutors native speakers of the language they are teaching? What are their qualifications? Have they taught business language before? Is your tutor readily accessible on the phone? You can tell a lot simply by the manner in which a school answers these questions and the speed of response.

‘We will go to the company premises or students can come to us,’ says de la Motte Harrison. ‘But we recommend students come to us because they are removed from interruptions. After that, learning ability relies on the three As – attitude, aptitude and availability. Motivation is critical,’ he says.

Berlitz tailors courses to clients’ requirements and at the top end of this is its total immersion courses, where student and tutor work closely together for the required number of weeks, depending on the student’s starting level.

And LSI invites executives for an assessment, as self-assessment was never the most accurate. ‘Someone will describe themselves as a beginner because they studied a language at A level some years ago and have not used it since,’ says head of foreign languages Catherine Bossard. ‘But they will remember it very quickly with tuition, and will find it easier to learn than a complete beginner.’

Bossard recommends one to one rather than class training for executives because lessons can be arranged around their travel schedule. ‘The ideal would be for someone to spend a week at one of our schools abroad and then have one to one lessons,’ she says. ‘But I know that is not often a realistic option for business travellers.’

Regular travellers have all seen entertaining translations in English: roasted duck running wild; the flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chamber maid; you are invited to take advantage of the chamber maid. But it is not so funny when your polite ‘Je suis plein(e)’ (literally: I am full) at the end of a meal with potential French customers turns out to mean: ‘I am pregnant’; or, a common – and vital – misunderstanding, if a German invites you to tender for a contract at halb neun, he will expect you at half past eight. More basic still, nai (pronounced ne, as in fled) in Greek means yes, not no, but a Greek may shake his head while saying it!

And those who are tempted to write off the need to learn a foreign tongue or two on the grounds that English is the language of business, would do well to remember the wisdom of Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE: ‘It is … absurd to assume that a language spoken … by under 20% of the population of the European Union can be sufficient to understand the modern world: 90% of the Internet may be in English, but 70% of the world’s books are not.’

There is no excuse for being tongue-tied.


When Catherine Stewart was working in the commercial contracts division of BT, she had problems deciding how to spend her allocation of the training budget. Stewart had studied German at A level and had also worked in Germany for six months but had since allowed her command of the language to slip, so she invested in a language course.

Stewart did an LCC Advance Level Conversation course, which involved one-to-one tuition two hours a week, and a couple of hours’ homework a week, for nine months. ‘It was very hard work because I wasn’t allowed to speak a word of English during the lessons,’ she says. ‘We discussed business and social issues, including telecoms news items from newspapers.

‘The amount of homework was realistic, and mostly involved learning vocabulary, and reading and understanding articles in German so that I could discuss them the next week.’

‘Not many people at BT spoke a foreign language and it seemed a pity my German had got rusty,’ she says. ‘At the time, I was dealing with a team in Germany and at least I was able to speak to the managers in their own language.’

Although Stewart did not do the course with a view to getting a new job, part way through the course, BT offered her a job in Germany, and her improving her language skills played a large part in that. Catherine Stewart went to Germany as alliance director to oversee the BT alliance with German and Norwegian telecoms companies.

‘I was able to build a relationship with the partners in the joint venture,’ she says. ‘It was so much easier to be accepted.’ And although all the meetings were in English, it allowed the German partners to use their own language where it became difficult to express subtleties and nuances. ‘They appreciated that I had made the effort to learn their language,’ she says.

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