Monoglots may lose out on fruitful future

26th March 2010 at 00:00

A conversation last week with a senior diplomat made me think about language skills in the UK - or, more to the point, the relative lack of them.

I generalise. I know lots of people who work in our industry can speak other languages. Nonetheless, our industry is one of the most internationalised, but also one in which English is the dominant language, at least in the western world.

In countries where the first language is not English, there is an expectation and a desire to learn at least one other language (usually, but not always, English). In business, it is routinely seen as an important addition to anyone's CV and, in business education, courses combined with English attract more interest than those which do not have a language component.

In the UK, building a foreign language into a course reduces, not increases, take-up. Away from the world of work, English is common in much of popular culture. It has become the most universal second language.

Our education system does its best, with the right to learn a foreign language up to Standard grade level here in Scotland, but there are limits to what can be achieved in a classroom.

I believe the UK is, by default, handing to others a competitive advantage. If our competitors can do all that we can and they can speak another language, then we are, by definition, less capable than they are. We may feel we make up for it in other ways, or we may feel that if English is the universal language, we can rely on others' efforts to learn our language.

But, as the world becomes increasingly connected, communicating across cultures and languages will become more important. Unlike the United States, where Spanish is now very widely spoken (albeit due largely to inward migration), we may become marooned on our monoglot island, victims of the export success of our own language.

SFE is at the early stages of discussions with one of our universities on researching the importance of language skills in our industry. Maybe that will tell us whether I am worrying unnecessarily.

Owen Kelly, chief executive, Scottish Financial Enterprise, Edinburgh.

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