Tongue-lashing for languages

5th January 2007 at 00:00

Alan Corbett Association of South East Colleges

Foreign languages seem to dominate the headlines at the moment, in the light of the Leitch Report and various government statements over the summer. However, one voice conspicuously absent from the debate is that of the employers. Until recently, I was working in international marketing for a global company in the City, and hope I can help fill this important void.

I started my marketing career as a researcher and rose to become a training officer, responsible for training a team capable of servicing the European and African market.

My first shock was the inability of university graduates to perform basic functions in foreign languages. As an industrialist, I felt utter despair at the quality of such graduates and cannot but wonder how three or four years of expensive university investment could produce so little of value to our economy. I believe, on the other hand, that FE colleges should be proud of what they achieve: students able to perform working functions, albeit sometimes within a limited role, to the benefit of the economy as a whole.

My second point is that I fear we are focusing too much effort in the wrong areas. Without a doubt, German is still the most important foreign language, yet it is in danger of extinction in our education system, unless urgent action is taken. It is not just the language of Germany, Austria and large parts of Switzerland and Italy, but also increasingly the business tongue of central and eastern Europe. I spoke German every day with Hungarian, Slovakian, Bulgarian and Russian companies with important commercial ties with the German-speaking world.

And while many Germans speak English, it always proved easier to discuss complex marketing issues in their language, if only because technical words in the two tongues are different and must be learned parrot-fashion.

French is still important, as is Spanish. But Polish is rapidly taking a prime position. While Polish is extremely difficult to learn, business communications are thankfully easy.

However, it is not just linguistics that matter. We must also teach foreign business cultures. FE colleges are recognising this need, and I hope we will soon be able to offer this vital knowledge to the business community.

To end on a high note: British students make superb linguists, if motivated and given the right training. A British linguist will always outperform foreign counterparts, if only because it is virtually impossible for a non-native speaker to master English phonetics.

It is not all gloom and doom - but employers must be given a prominent voice and allowed more scope to influence the way forward. Make no mistake, the stakes are high. Unless we address the languages issue and focus on what we aim to achieve, we will continue to fail industry, with serious consequences for the nation's long-term prosperity.

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