Language learning doesn’t end with school

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Written by Panos Kraniotis on 10 August 2016

International businesses recognise the value of language skills within the workforce. Employees with languages can engage confidently with suppliers, customers and colleagues across borders. Relationships can be made stronger and this helps improve productivity and sales conversions.

The movement of labour around international offices gives employees a broader experience of the company, to the benefit of both the business and their own career development and progression.

The development of language skills is supported through schools and higher education. However, businesses cannot rely on this early grounding alone to deliver sustainable language skills that will provide value in the business world.

In a survey of over 5,000 business learners from companies that currently provide language training to its workforce, only 46 per cent of language learners felt the language courses they took at school adequately prepared them for the 21st century workplace. 

If the benefit of providing language learning early on in life is to be realised by businesses and individuals in the workplace, companies must acknowledge that there is a skills gap to fill. By addressing this through training, they can build on the work begun in school to help employees gain the confidence they need to use language skills on the job.

The good news is, the groundwork is undoubtedly laid. A huge 81 per cent from the survey confirmed they had taken language courses in school. Among Europe-based employees, the percentage was even higher – 90 per cent – but only 47 per cent felt adequately prepared by those courses for work.

In North America, the pattern is similar: 80 per cent had language education in school, yet only 31 per cent felt prepared for using their second language at work. In contrast, 70 per cent of respondents from the Middle East and Africa and 68 per cent from Asia-Pacific felt adequately prepared.

Skills gap

European and American companies therefore face the biggest challenge in plugging the language skills gap, according to the survey.

Businesses that start out in English-speaking territories may regard English as the universal language of business. They may therefore believe that language skills are not lacking and that a skills gap doesn’t need to be filled.

However, the Manifesto for Languages published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages in 2014 cited an estimated loss to the UK economy of around £50 billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workforce. In addition to the setting of goals in education, it called on all parties to commit to improve foreign language skills in the UK through an incentive to businesses to invest in language training.

For the many global companies that conduct their business across a wide range of countries, languages are essential to break down both communication and cultural barriers with customers, suppliers, overseas colleagues and partners.

In-house language skills help employees communicate effectively in international markets. This can keep costs down by reducing reliance on translators, and result in more efficient, higher quality negotiations and increased sales opportunities.

Productivity improvements, better cross-team working and improved employee engagement and motivation can also result from an investment in language skills. In fact in our latest Impact Survey, 71 per cent of respondents say their language training has improved their job performance and 61 per cent say it has made them more productive in their work with teams, partners and vendors.

Confidence or a lack of is often at the root of adults not using, and potentially losing their language skills. Training that provides as much conversation practice as possible for learners is therefore critical for success. The more learners practice, the more their confidence is boosted. It’s a virtuous cycle.

To achieve this doesn’t necessarily mean investing time and money in face-to-face tutoring, which can be hard to fit into busy schedules and difficult to implement with a dispersed workforce. High-quality content driven by qualified tutors can be provided through online and virtual learning environments.

Virtual tutoring sessions are particularly valuable, as they provide conversation practice with a tutor who can help learners realise their strengths, and set them on a path to confident, fluent speech.

Virtual or remote learning also relieves the pressure to learn at the pace of a group; this can be a drawback of traditional face-to-face training, and can negatively impact learner confidence. Digital programmes support learners in practicing at their own pace and in the way that matches their learning style.

Initiatives to raise language proficiency of students leaving formal education are undoubtedly valuable. Aside from the skills gained, they also instil an early appreciation of other languages and cultures.

If businesses are to gain the benefits of these important skills in the workforce, though, it is clear they need to accept their role in fostering ongoing language learning. The return on investment will not only help to impact their bottom line, but it will help to motivate and engage their workforce.

About the author

Panos Kraniotis is Regional Director, Europe at Rosetta Stone.