I have just come from a hilarious conversation with someone who described helping a non -French speaking, but house owning Brit in France deal with the plumber who was repairing an urgent problem with a malfunctioning toilet. Thank goodness for video Skype.


Foreign language learning in this country has been declining for some time. We can’t just blame this decline on schools or government because employers also have an important role to play in encouraging language skills. Most often in business I am told that knowledge of a foreign language is unnecessary because ”everyone speaks English.” Not true. Many don’t; and even when they do, the standard is often lower than you think. People nod and we think they agree but actually they have not understood.


Learning a foreign language goes beyond daily conversation. It makes you more alert to ‘false friends,’ and other people’s errors. For example, there was the journalist who wrote about Italy’s “absurdly named permanent temporary centres.” I laughed at the misunderstanding, the Italian word ‘permanenza’ does not mean permanent, it means ‘stay.’ Similarly, I know Brits who have been disappointed by a Mexican talking about compromise; but actually offering another concession would be wrong because ‘compromiso’ in Spanish means commitment.


It also makes you more aware of how you express yourself, – so that you don’t answer the phone to an Italian and say that the person she wishes to speak to ‘is tied up at the moment’ – goodness only knows what she thought was going on there – but instead instinctively use basic level vocabulary: “she is not available at the moment.”


So what should employers do?


•  recognise that even basic experience of learning a foreign language is a good start, and will help us do business better globally. A basic knowledge alerts you to the need to express yourself differently when speaking to others. Moreover, it helps you key in to different ways of thinking, it makes you more observant, and therefore more understanding of the ways of others, and removes suspicion and misunderstanding. This adds up to better communication, and being able to do business better, and faster. Employers should recognise that a little goes a long way and make provision for language learning amongst their training programmes, even for people who work only occasionally abroad, or with people from other countries


•  Employers should include someone who speaks the other language to expert level, even if everyone at the meeting is going to speak English


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Janice Caplan, 10 May 2018