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Britain’s failure to learn foreign languages is yet again in the news, in particular regarding the inability of our people to study and work in non-English speaking countries.

Michael Lefante’s article of 21st February ““ “Language Decline is Underestimated” – made excellent, though alarming, reading. I agree with every word he wrote and would welcome this opportunity to add detail to the argument.

Prior to entering the FE Sector, I worked in the City of London for a market research company, which traded all over the world. My office specialised in European and African markets and thus it was a rare event to speak to a native English speaker. Those of us who communicated in foreign languages achieved three times the sales” volume of monolingual members of staff. That company now recruits only bilingual staff.

Why the huge difference in turnover between linguists and monolingual staff? The answer is perhaps a cliché ““ but true. English as a second language is very easy to speak badly. Linguists compare English to a peach ““ easy to break the skin but impossible to reach the core. French, Spanish and Italian are more like a coconut ““ hard to break the skin, but once broken, easy to reach the core. How do you explain to a foreigner that in English we “chop down” a tree, then “chop it up”? And how do you explain that “ough” is pronounced seven different ways?

Whereas foreign languages are phonetic, English is not and thus another massive source of confusion. Therefore sophisticated international business transactions conducted in English are very likely to be full of misunderstandings and will regularly fail. Thus Michael Lefante’s observation that British businesses focus the vast, vast majority of their efforts on English speaking markets. However, it is relatively easy for a business to conduct transactions in a foreign language, if staff receive basic training.

In truth, English is totally unsuited to be the global business language. Sadly however, most UK companies will ignore this observation and persist with old habits, and they will be the losers. Companies seeking to treble their export market will – sooner or later – accept the fact that selling abroad means speaking foreign languages. Full stop.

Regarding colleges, I am privileged to chair a working group whose aim is to ensure that the FE Sector is ready to provide business language training fit for purpose. We already provide bespoke training in Western European languages but are now poised to launch courses for more exotic destinations, such as “Polish for Business Executives” and other similar courses in Mandarin.

In sum, the time has come to stop observing the dire state of language learning in this country and take action to put matters right. The college sector is engaged in this vital work. We can only hope that industry will finally accept the inevitable and join us in putting UK plc back on the international map, at least beyond the borders of English speaking nations.

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

What do you think about language learning in the UK?

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Related FE News articles:

“Language Decline is Underestimated” ““ 21/02/07

UK Research Base Affected by Language Decline ““ 16/02/07

“English Just Isn”t Enough” ““ 12/02/07

“Colleges Help Migrants” ““ 07/02/07

“Employers Must Articulate Their Views” ““ 08/01/07

Lord Dearing Publishes Language Report ““ 15/12/06

Language Learning Needs “Urgent Action” ““ 28/11/06

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