Effective communication is at the heart of every business – conversations with customers, suppliers, colleagues and partners. For companies operating internationally, communication is multilingual. While English is broadly viewed as the lingua franca of business, global companies are undoubtedly able to enjoy richer, more productive conversations with stakeholders across borders when they can operate in different languages.

Through language we connect with people, not just through what we say but in the way we understand and relate to one another. Communication is about more than just the spoken and written word – it’s about appreciating other cultures and, in the corporate world, about understanding different ways of conducting business. The nuances and subtleties go towards building strong connections and they can be the difference between winning or losing contracts and establishing – or failing to establish – long-lasting business relationships.

Recognising this, a range of studies have looked into the impact on UK businesses – and the UK as a whole – of a lack of foreign language skills. Indeed, last year the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages cites the UK’s language skills deficit is currently estimated to cost 3.5% of GDP.  Understandably, this resonates with business. So much so, that a CBI/Pearson survey, recently cited by the government, revealed that almost two thirds of businesses say employees’ foreign language skills are important.

Post-Brexit, corporations will be keen to assert their position in an unfamiliar trading environment. UK businesses with a workforce proficient in no language other than English may find themselves – and the UK as a whole – at a disadvantage.

The importance of language skills

When individuals and teams can engage confidently with internal and external stakeholders across borders, opportunities can be seized and problems more easily addressed. Working relationships can be made stronger and this, in turn, helps improve productivity. There are also day-to-day, practical benefits to in-house language capabilities including cost reductions through a reduced reliance on translators.

These are strong reasons for investing in language learning, but there is also evidence of other benefits that speakers of one or more additional languages enjoy. A number of studies have shown that a range of more general, desirable attributes can come from bi- or multilingualism and these attributes can be valuable to employers as well as employees.      

More than just communications skills

There is a correlated link between how many languages someone speaks and their decision-making abilities with psychologists at the University of Chicago suggesting that people make more “rational” decisions when they use their second, non-native language. A Pennsylvania State University study meanwhile, indicates that people with more than one language make better multi-taskers, possibly because switching between languages is a form of “mental exercise” that equips the speaker with mental “juggling” skills.

Fortunately for companies wanting to grasp the opportunities that a workforce proficient in languages brings, technology and digital learning solutions can help assess employees’ current capabilities and language learning needs and deliver programmes to suit individuals, teams and the company as a whole.

Where employees are geographically dispersed and comprise a range of office-based, home-based and occasional office-based workers, digital learning packages provide a higher level of flexibility than purely face-to-face training can. Not only that, it supports the needs of HR and Learning & Development to centrally track and report on team and employee training progress and to measure the overall success of training programmes. 

Technology-enabled study can help meet each learner’s own particular training needs by assessing their capabilities up-front and adapting the programme according to learning pace, style and rate of progress. Multimedia formats enhance the learning experience and can help engage employees, while personal feedback helps keep learners motivated.

Languages are to be spoken and listened to, not just read, so it’s important that learning programmes support the spoken word. Simulated realistic speaking situations can be delivered through online learning and these help employees develop and maintain good pronunciation and build confidence in conversing in the language they are learning.

In the global world of business, the ability to communicate across cultures and boundaries isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. Many businesses are turning to technology to help them plug their communications skills gaps, and to build language capabilities within their workforces that will help them enjoy fruitful interactions and sustain long-lasting customer and supplier relationships. 

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