'Sounds more like Paris than Coventry'

In the corridors of Peugeot Motor Company's headquarters in Coventry you are as likely to hear French spoken as English.

Into this atmosphere come groups of GCSE students as part of the company's education business partnership programme, which aims to motivate pupils by giving them a taste of how French is used in the business world.

"It's very much a French environment here," says Ray French, manager of the Peugeot Partnership Centre. "This is one of the strengths of the business to modern languages teachers.

"You can tell children until you're blue in the face that they can speak a foreign language. But not until they come to somewhere like Peugeot do they begin to believe it. People are having conversations in French. At times it sounds more like an office in Paris than Coventry."

Under the programme, students get involved in business procedures such as ordering a car, sending e-mails or paying bills - and they do it in French.

Employees at Peugeot are also language learning. They can enrol on in-house training programmes in French for an hour and a half a week during their working day. The aim is to get them fluent within three years - which is essential for anyone wanting to climb the management ladder.

"They may attend meetings in France or video conferencing in French. They can't do their job unless they have the language."

This kind of professional development benefits employees and employers alike. But Derek Winslow, chief executive of the Languages National Training Organistion, believes that although companies are waking up to the importance of modern languages, they are still only responding to it when they have to.

"I think there is a greater awareness, certainly on the part of bigger employers, of an added-value element if there is a language capacity in a potential employee.

"On the other hand, there is a tendency for firms to wait until they have a need and to solve the need in the most speedy way they can - and in a slightly unplanned way."

His organisation is carrying out languages audits for regional development agencies in the North East and North West to see how far languages education meets the region's needs. Other regions are expected to follow suit.

The training organisation is proposing that each region should create its own languages network, drawing in further and higher education and schools.

"We have noticed an increasing willingness for people to share information and particularly to share initiatives," says Mr Winslow. "We're hoping to help people generate concerted action in a region. Rather than two or three colleges here or there saying 'Let's have a languages week', if the whole region said 'Let's do something', you're going to make more of an impact.

"Similarly, if we can get people within regions to co-ordinate bids for European projects funding, the chances are you'd be a much bigger hitter than you are individually.

"Let's make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. If we do that, then everybody benefits."

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