From education to employment

Exclusive with Alan Corbett

Foreign languages are rarely out of the spotlight at the current time, especially in the light of the Leitch Report and various Government statements over the summer. However, one voice that is conspicuously absent in the debate is that of employers.

I started my marketing career as a researcher and rose to become a training officer. As such I was responsible for training a team capable of servicing the European and African market. My firm has offices in Asia and the Americas, so I will limit my comments to the European land mass and defer from judgements regarding markets further afield.

The first shock that awaited me in my new career was the total lack of ability of university graduates to perform even basic functions in foreign languages. As an industrialist I felt utter despair at the quality of such graduates and cannot but wonder how three or four years of expensive university investment could produce so little of value to the UK economy. I believe that FE colleges can be proud of what we achieve. At least our students are able to perform working functions, albeit sometimes within a limited role, to the benefit of the economy as a whole.

My second point is that I fear that we are focussing too much effort in the wrong areas. Without a doubt German is still the most important foreign language. It is not just that it is the language of Germany, Austria and large parts of Switzerland and Italy; it is also increasingly spoken in central and eastern Europe. I spoke German every day with Hungarian, Slovakian, Bulgarian and Russian companies with big commercial ties with the German-speaking world. These people spoke German fluently, reflecting their economic position. Given that they had no export market in the UK, their English was limited to talking about their family and hobbies, hardly good preparation for international marketing.

Whilst Germans are reasonable English speakers, it always proved easier to discuss complex marketing issues in their language, if only as the technical words in the two tongues are completely different and must be learned parrot-fashion.

French is still important, as is Spanish. But Polish is rapidly taking a prime position. Whilst Polish is an extremely difficult language to learn, business communications are remarkably easy. However, it is not just linguistics that matter. We must also teach foreign business cultures. FE Colleges are recognising this need and I hope that we can soon offer this vital knowledge to the business community.

Finally, I want to finish on a high note. I can honestly say that British students make superb linguists, if motivated and offered the right training. A British linguist will always outperform his foreign counterpart, if only as pronunciation of foreign languages is easy, whereas it is virtually impossible for a non native speaker to master English phonetics.

So it is not all gloom and doom; exactly the opposite. But we will not progress until we get the basics right and that, I fear, is where we continue to go wrong.

Alan Corbett, International Officer, Association of South East Colleges.

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