With companies increasingly seeking to expand abroad, language proficiency has become an increasingly critical issue for large brands. It’s deemed so important that some companies are investing in language training for existing staff, and seeing their reputations improve as a result.
But language skills aren’t sufficient to make a worker valuable to a company. Rob Wall, head of employment and education at the CBI, reminds workers that employers want more than just languages and a global mindset.
“They’re also looking for employability skills – teamwork, communication skills, resilience.” It isn’t enough to focus just on language ability: language skills are just a part of what makes a worker valuable to an organisation.
Despite companies expressing an interest in acquiring workers with language skills, very few companies report having significant numbers of multilingual employees. Two-thirds of those surveyed by Forbes said that fewer than half of their employees had professional proficiency in more than one language. Around a third of companies said fewer than one in ten of their employees was multilingual.
Language skills don’t merely offer a worker the ability to communicate. Having language abilities also boosts your cultural understanding and ability to empathise with other cultures – something that’s significantly useful in a global marketplace.
This linguistic and cultural dexterity isn’t just useful to external clients and customers – it’s also useful for the company’s internal communications and team strength.
Multinational brands particularly value multilingual employees because of their facility to communicate in international teams. Knowing a language can help people understand cultures better. There’s no equivalent English word for the Chinese concept guanxi; a kind of social cohesion that’s useful capital when it comes to doing business in PRC.
Language knowledge supports the cultural understanding that’s essential to doing business across very different cultures.
National language ability
At a national level, language skills are seen as an important domestic resource supporting competitiveness and the export market. If you want to sell abroad, you really need language skills and cultural knowledge – with the two often going hand in hand.
A lack of language skill can even be a legal risk for companies venturing abroad, as it’s easier to run into regulatory issues and cultural misunderstandings.
It’s thought that the UK’s foreign language skills deficit could cost the UK up to £48bn per year (or 3.5% of GDP), with most of the cost put down to business reluctance to trade internationally.
A report by the British Chamber of Commerce found that 62% of non-exporting companies regarded languages as a barrier to exporting. A company that lacks language ability may be denying itself opportunities because it lacks the confidence language skills bring.
The surprising impact of language capabilities
According to a report by Forbes Insights and Rosetta Stone, having a multi-lingual workforce also changes the way a company is perceived in the marketplace. Companies that offer language training are seen as improving career prospects for employees, as well as raising their attractiveness as an employer for job seekers outside the business.
The report also finds that its sales, marketing, and customer service teams that most benefit from the presence of language skills in the workforce. But the benefits aren’t restricted to those areas. Where companies offer language training, employees who participate have greater confidence, improved performance, and increased engagement in work.
But language capabilities may bring other benefits. There’s some evidence that being able to speak more than one language may boost intellectual facilities.
Bilingual people have been shown to perform better than monolingual people in spatial working memory tasks, and they’re also better at switching between tasks. Being bilingual also seems to deliver benefits in cognitive processing, such as discarding irrelevant stimuli. Perhaps a multilingual workforce is also one that’s more cognitively able?
Finding a solution
Although only 2% of companies were found to be satisfied with the language skills of graduates, the answer to the problem is more complex than getting more people to study languages at degree level. Companies don’t just look for candidates with language skills – they need a more rounded skill set.
The problem really is one of distribution. With shortages of skills in fields such as the STEM professions, tech and digital, and a low level of language ability in the general UK population, it’s very tough to find a candidate that combines the professional skills you need with the specific language you require.
According to Richard Hardie of UBS, the company often opts to bring foreign workers to the UK on secondment – a costly way to resolve the problem.
As the Brexit decision-making process continues to unfold, it’s still unclear how companies will source workers with language abilities in the future. If it becomes less easy to hire language skills internationally, businesses may have to find more creative solutions.
Language training for existing employees may be an option for some businesses – sectors such as customer service, travel and hospitality may find this of particular value to their business.
If UK businesses can’t find enough language skills, it’s likely to impact both on their competitiveness and on the country’s export activity.