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Lack of staff knowledge of foreign languages is damaging UK businesses


A growing number of UK businesses are trading overseas, but ‘monolingualism’ could bear a high price for employers according to Regus

The Regus survey shows more than two fifths (41%) of UK firms do not believe local language fluency to be critical to overseas business success.

Managers' lack of foreign language skills is pinpointed in the research as a rising challenge for the UK at a time when firms are being urged to do more trade overseas, especially with non-EU markets such as the BRIC countries and South America.

The changing profile of international trade could see language skills elevated from advantage to necessity far more frequently than in the past. Monolingual Brits are already finding themselves beaten to international business and marketing jobs by foreign candidates with superior language skills.

The research canvassed the views of 2,700 business owners and managers in the UK, and found only 35% of firms appointing an expat to manage overseas operations require them to be fluent in the local language.

One reason may be that they simply cannot find a sufficient pool of multilingual British candidates. Less than half of firms (44%) give expat managers a cultural briefing prior to their move overseas. An above average proportion of firms (57%) choose to staff foreign operations with local managers, which may reflect a specific cultural strategy but is more likely to be influenced by the lack of foreign language-speaking 'home-grown' talent.

"People" is highlighted by business respondents as one of the top two biggest obstacles to overseas expansion.

Stephan Chambers, MBA programme director, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, said: "Despite the near ubiquity of English in world business, it's clear that there will be an increasing premium on managers who speak Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Russian as the centres of business power move inexorably towards the new economic powerhouses of China and elsewhere.

"Fluency in languages other than our own must help insight and understanding and, in turn, our national competitiveness."

Celia Donne, Regional director at Regus added: "UK firms who have diversified overseas are faring better in the current economic climate than those who have stayed within their home markets. This chimes with many commentators' views that exports play an increasingly vital role in economic stability. Traditionally, 'property' is one of the key obstacles to overseas expansion, but given the wide availability of flexible workspace options around the globe, I would suggest that nowadays this is more perception than reality.

"Staffing decisions and language capabilities are a real sticking point. Many UK firms rely on English as the 'lingua franca' of business, but speaking the customer's language helps build lasting relationships that make commercial dealings run smoother, and could even prove a decisive factor in winning new business. All indicators suggest that UK firms must reduce their reliance on English to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the world's growth markets. If the British workforce cannot plug the skills gap, then foreign candidates with language skills will be first to the job opportunities."