Look who’s talking
on May 12, 2021

first_img Comments are closed. Look who’s talkingOn 1 Apr 2001 in Personnel Today HelenVandevelde detonates the debate about foreign language training and gives herview that it has benefits which you probably haven’t thought ofAEurobarometer survey just out suggests that English is fast becoming the internationallanguage of the European Union. Asked whether everyone in the EU should speakEnglish, two-thirds of the 16,000 participants said “yes”.Thesurvey could not have come at a worse time for those who argue that people inthe UK should do more to acquire foreign language skills. At the end of lastyear, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry published its report, Languages: the nextgeneration, urging the establishment of a national strategy, complete with itsown supremo with direct access to the Cabinet Office. Andlast month saw the official launch of the European Commission’s project, theEuropean Year of Languages.Thenatural response from the monolingual tendency is to say, “Why bother ifeveryone else is going to learn English anyway?” – 40 per cent of thosesurveyed claimed to be able to use English as a foreign language. Ifyou add the 16 per cent of EU citizens who speak English as their firstlanguage, we’re already over halfway to English being the common language ofthe organisation (French and German come next with around one-third of the EUpopulation being able to speak them).Sohow strong is the case for the Brits to get off their bottom position in theEuropean language league? The problem with the debate about foreign languageacquisition is that it hasn’t been a debate at all. We’vehad a serial procession of worthy reports about the importance of languagelearning since the 1960s. They all warn of the job losses that will arisebecause we can’t speak the languages of our customers. And here we are in 2001,still unable to unveil the first person to be made redundant because theycouldn’t speak German or Spanish. Noone ever puts forward the case that we shouldn’t learn languages. Why shouldthey? Who would ever come up with a campaign slogan that goes, “Let’s justnot bother”?Theconsequence of the absence of debate is that the case in favour of languages isseen as special pleading on the part of vested interests like commerciallanguage trainers. So, how strong is the case against language training forbusiness?Infact, there’s a lot to be said against language learning in terms of itsopportunity cost. It takes a long time to learn. It’s expensive. And unlike forthose in all the other EU countries, except Ireland, there isn’t an obviousforeign language to learn.It’sthe long lead times that are the biggest problem for UK plc. If you want toexpand into Portugal or Greece, you can’t afford to hang around until yourstaff know how to ask for a business card in the relevant foreign language. Andwhat if your staff start to learn German but economic conditions require you toswitch to Spain? You’ll never see morale plummet so fast.Addto that the specialist language services available to companies seeking toexpand into new markets, and the coffin lid for languages looks firmly screwedon. Whybother training your staff when you can access multilingual call centres,specialist translation and interpretation services, not to mention targetedpromotional campaigns with in-depth knowledge of the culture and expectationsof the target market? If you’re still keen to pursue an in-house solution, theobvious route is to recruit the expertise you need, rather than spending yearsdeveloping it.Sohas the recent development of specialist language services weakened the casefor foreign language acquisition? Paradoxically the answer is “no”.Butthe strength of the argument in favour hasn’t been made by the lobbyists inreports like Languages: the next generation. What they have missed is the divergenceof interest between the individual and the company. The business case forlanguage development is marginal other than where there are unusualcombinations of circumstances, such as the need to collaborate closely withspecialists in a minority language area. Forthe individual, the position can be very different. The need to invest inlong-term employability makes foreign language acquisition attractive,especially for world languages like Mandarin Chinese and Arabic that have lowexposure in the West. Aswe’ve seen, the better solution for the company is to recruit for languageskills rather than to train for them. So for the individual, having the rightcombination of expertise and language skills can turn them into a piece of hotmerchandise.Andthis is just where the interests of the company reconnect to those of theindividual. Businesses whose success depends on their ability to attracttalented staff understand that the best way to retain talented staff is toinvest in their employability. So the smart thinking in company training isaround enabling good people to pursue their own career aspirations, includingforeign language acquisition.Thereare backwash advantages for the company too. Graham Heard, lecturer inlanguages and pre-MBA course director at the Cranfield School of Management, isconscious of the development of cross-cultural communication as a businessnorm. He has noticed how often first language English speakers get intodifficulty when communicating with speakers of English as an additionallanguage.”Nativespeakers have to become aware that their complex use of language isn’t going tobe understood by foreigners, even those who seem to speak English well.Learning a new language yourself helps you to develop that sensitivity.”MaryOrr, professor of French Studies at Exeter University, reinforces thecollateral benefits that arise from language learning. “If you speakanother language, you are sensitive to different things because you’re notquite a native. And that gives you a flexibility and self-awareness that amonolingual speaker never develops.”Thereis, then, a strong case to be made for company-sponsored foreign languageacquisition. But the arguments are more subtle than the white noise generatedby the language lobbyists. Languagetraining needs to be rescued from the tumbleweed sidings that the lobbyistshave shunted it into. As an option to be pursued within the broader context ofrecruitment, retention and motivation strategies, it could have a vibrantfuture.www.cilt.org.uk/ey12001/    [email protected]’cornerTheCouncil of Europe and the European Union have joined forces to implement the EYL,as the European Year of Languages 2001 is known.Theaims of the EYL include:–To increase awareness of Europe’s linguistic heritage and openness to differentlanguages and cultures as a source of mutual enrichment –Motivating European citizens to develop a degree of communicative ability in anumber of languages, in order to improve active participation in Europeandemocratic processes–Encouraging and supporting language learning for personal developmentTwomajor instruments to promote plurilingualism developed in the context of theModern Languages Project in Strasbourg will be launched:–The Common European Framework of reference – a tool for all those concernedlanguage coaching–The European Language Portfolio – to a personal record for learners Forinformation on EYL events in the UK, contact the Centre for Information onLanguage Teaching and Research  [email protected]   or   www.cilt.org.uk/ey12001/ Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos.last_img

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