'Languages? They're so gay'

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Languages are now seen by pupils as "gay - for women, not men's stuff", a prominent languages campaigner in Scottish business has warned.

Only around 30 per cent of language graduates are men and the gender gap is worsening, Tim Steward, manager of Language Network Scotland, last weekend told quality improvement officers at their annual conference.

But boys needed to remember that footballing role models such as Gary Lineker spoke Spanish and Japanese, Paul Gascoigne spoke some Italian, and David Beckham now spoke Spanish.

Mr Steward said economic viability is being damaged by poor language skills and urged political leaders to jolt Scotland out of its "monolingual, self-complacent and self-satisfied" perspective.

When he went into schools to promote languages, he told pupils that they should not simply think of languages as leading to jobs in interpreting, translating or teaching. Instead, they should learn languages whatever their career ambitions - as doctors, dentists, engineers, sportsmen or computer programmers.

Declining numbers of first-degree students were choosing languages at university, for example, down 15 per cent between 1998-99 and 2001-02.

Mr Steward, who speaks French, German and Japanese, has worked in whisky exporting and advises other businesses about how to market themselves abroad. He said businesses were losing money because of their languages policies.

Out of 25 European countries, the UK was 24th (ahead only of Hungary) in terms of its language skills. Languages were central to movement around Europe and in Edinburgh alone there were 5,000 young Polish workers with language skills in French, German and English as well as Polish.

"In the hospitality trade they won't employ a Scot," he said.

In Glasgow, he said, most family bakers' shops would not employ Scots because they could employ Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles and Latvians who were in this country to improve their English.

He had been approached, he said, by the Scottish Master Bakers' Federation for health and safety notices in these languages. When he asked why they needed them, the federation said its members no longer wanted to employ young Scots because of their unreliability - but East Europeans were reliable and good workers.

Mr Steward quoted a survey by CiLT (the National Centre for Languages) and the Languages Network Training Organisation of small to medium-sized exporting businesses which showed that nearly half had experienced linguistic or cultural barriers and one in five had lost business as a result. A similar British Chambers of Commerce survey showed that companies which simply responded to approaches from overseas rather than instigating business development opportunities tended to communicate only in English.

These firms were described as "opportunists" and their business was found to be declining by pound;50,000 per year on average.

On the other hand, companies which were proactive in their export approach and adapted products, services and sales literature to meet market needs placed a high value on language skills. These companies, categorised as "enablers", found their business increasing on average by pound;290,000 per year.

Mr Steward said some Scottish-based companies were world leaders and employed language skills well, including Eaton in Glasgow, a manufacturing company which employs accountants who speak a variety of languages. At Eaton, the ability to speak a language meant a pay premium: pound;3,000 per language for the more commonly spoken languages, and pound;5,000 for Japanese.

"The languages you speak are actually there in your pay packet. Languages mean money - that's all I have to say to kids in schools," he said.

Leader 22

Conference report 4

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