Knowing more than just the local lingo
3 February 2016
MaryLou Costa, Head of Content
English is the language of business, science and tourism, asserted Financial Times columnist Michael Skapinker last month, affirming David Cameron’s statement that learning it is vital to unlocking opportunities around the world. The argument for putting all your language eggs in the English basket is gaining pace, with the advantages of multilingualism being questioned, such as the pyschologists who argue in this Atlantic piece that there is little hard evidence to back the pros of speaking a foreign language.
With bilingual benefits for native English speakers perceived as being moot, no wonder, then, that the numbers of students taking a language at A-level are down 28 per cent since 1996, while over 40 UK universities have closed their language departments since 2000.
We aren’t foolish enough to dispute that us native speakers have the upper hand. Even when you’re travelling the world in countries with pockets of limited English, you manage to get by. But there are always times when speaking the local language would avoid heartache, hassle, stress and disappointment. Like the time in Albania when I ended up having to eat a whole plate of deep-fried frogs for lunch when I thought I’d ordered steak.
The ROI of languages
Beyond being able to regale your friends with funny holiday stories, avoiding heartache, hassle, stress and disappointment when applied to business means avoiding unnecessary expenses, wasted resources and a potentially damaged reputation. Not so moot now, then? To put this into a professional context, in this Forbes and Rosetta Stone report, 67% of business leaders said that miscommunications contributing to inefficiency were one of the most significant consequences of language barriers. Cardiff Business School has in recent years even measured the ‘gross language effect’ – ie the economic impact of language barriers – as equating to around £48 billion in the UK alone.
If the public and private sector invested in equipping the UK workforce with languages, how much of this could we scrape back? MIT, for example, has calculated that an individual can accrue a 2% salary premium thanks to their ability to speak a foreign language. With this in mind, what then is the cumulative value of this to businesses?
If you could put a financial value on not just additional costs avoided but incremental value gained (imagine the real heart to hearts David Cameron could have with his international counterparts if he spoke more than token French or German), wouldn’t you begin to associate languages in the world of business as an asset, with its own line of attributable ROI?
Opening new doors
It is also not just about being schooled in language, but also culture, which can have a huge effect on how relationships progress (or don’t). How many business blunders, dead ends and wasted time can be avoided not just by speaking the right language, but not knowing the right cultural ‘ins’, with the understanding and effectiveness to achieve your goals quicker? In fact, a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on SMEs, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee identified that UK companies are failing to explore profitable opportunities because they lack the language skills to enter into foreign trade.
It’s hardly easy to hire an office full of linguists overnight who are also talented at the job itself – at Withpr, it’s taken us over five years, learning many a language and culture lesson of our own along the way. If you find yourself at a business lunch in Italy, for example, the only coffee that’s appropriate to have after a meal is an espresso (lattes will have you laughed out of town). And all over South America, it’s acceptable and in fact expected to sign off an email with ‘hugs’ – or even ‘kisses’!
Making languages a USP
Understanding how languages would set us apart from our competitors and open the door for us to enter new markets, we’ve rigorously handpicked our team, and now, we service 92% of our clients with multi-market briefs, by a team of local market experts, speaking 12 languages, all from our London headquarters. We are always looking to expand our global repertoire, with Mandarin and Russian next on our list!
Languages are a cornerstone of the Withpr model, delivering multilingual communications for international businesses out of one office. This creates massive efficiencies with one agency reporting into a global marketing lead who doesn’t have to translate their message and brief across markets.
If the UK wants to gain further international prowess, languages are key. If a tech PR agency in Dalston can successfully harness the power of language, then what can it open up for other businesses?