The lack of importance placed on developing language and business communication skills by UK employers is startling.
In order to mark our centenary this year (we’re having a party to celebrate this weekend at The Orangery at Kensington Palace), we commissioned some market research among UK HR directors and discovered something that we had suspected for a long time – it is simply not considered a priority.
But failing to communicate effectively with overseas business partners is a classic British mistake and it is disappointing to see that the issue is still not being addressed.
In the current economic climate where so much emphasis is being placed on selling goods and services into export markets, it is vital to ensure that the UK is and remains a player.
But if we are unable to communicate with people from other cultures, countries and backgrounds, we are in danger of dropping further and further down global business league tables.
Our research was prompted as much by the growing number of professional non-native English speakers who work in the UK as the increasing need for native English speakers to communicate with international partners.
Making oneself understood
However, although the vast majority of respondents (98%) believed that non-native English speakers could communicate well in English, such confidence was found to be questionable.
People working in specialist professions such as law, finance, healthcare, engineering and even HR, for instance, often require training in the specific vocabulary, phrases and jargon used by these professions in the UK.
A report from the House of Lords questioning the ability of foreign doctors who were working in the UK to communicate effectively with their patients gives a perfect illustration of the problem.
However, our research also indicated that, while 28% of HR directors would be prepared to offer training in this area if they thought it necessary, only 10% had sufficient budget available.
As for English speakers working in the UK, an unsurprising two out of five believed that “as English is the worldwide language of business, it is the responsibility of non-native speakers to make sure they can understand English”.
Fortunately, it is true that most international business activity is undertaken in English, but that is still no excuse for failing to adapt the way we communicate in order to make ourselves understood more easily.
Nonetheless, 78% of respondents felt it unnecessary to train native English speakers in how to moderate their speech, accent or vocabulary when negotiating with non-native English speakers.
A further 79% said that voice or accent training for employees who gave regularly presentations to non-native English speakers was also not on the table.
But the issue here is that, if an organisation’s business partners are willing to negotiate with its representatives in English, isn’t it only polite of those representatives to adapt their language in order to make themselves more comprehensible?
Training people to avoid jargon, slang, and unnecessarily complex vocabulary can help put international business partners at ease and could make the difference between success and failure during negotiations.
Similarly, a failure to moderate a strong regional or foreign accent can undermine clear lines of communication.
The problem is that, a Spanish negotiator working for a UK business may have excellent English, but if it is hidden under a thick Madrid accent, it may be difficult for his (English-speaking) Chinese counterpart to understand – particularly on the phone. Equally, a strong British regional accent can baffle an overseas business partner.
But some 63% of HR directors did not appreciate the fact that a UK regional accent could affect the ability of a non-native English speaker to understand. Just over half likewise believed that English spoken with a strong foreign accent would not cause problems for others.
As a result, 78% of those questioned indicated that they would not consider voice training to soften a regional accent, while 69% would not suggest help to modify a foreign accent.
Finally, our research looked at cultural understanding. Globalisation may have come a long way, but scratch below the surface and cultural differences still run deep. A failure to understand the different cultures of our trading partners can, at best, cause misunderstandings and, at worst, lead to offence and lost business.
For instance, just because a Saudi Arabian contact is not paying attention to a 20-minute Powerpoint presentation doesn’t mean that he’s not interested in doing a deal.
If a Chinese buyer prefers not to linger over discussions about the organisation’s services at a first meeting and invites your sales person to a restaurant instead, it would be wrong to assume that she is simply indifferent to their ideas.
Reassuringly, however, just over two thirds of those questioned did consider it “very important” for business people to have a good cultural understanding of their business partners.
But only 23% said that they would consider offering personnel cross-cultural training in order to help UK staff control and manage meetings more effectively and/or adapt their behaviour to increase the chance of building long-term international business partnerships.
On the plus side, however, it seems that a mere 4% condone the ‘Basil Fawlty’ approach to foreigners of simply speaking more loudly in order to get their point across!
Hauke Tallon is managing director of language training provider, The London School of English.