“As business becomes increasingly borderless in years to come, the language skills and cultural competencies of our business leaders will become critical to our economic health”
Gary Muddyman, CEO of Oxford-based translation agency Conversis, discusses the language skills crisis facing the UK and explains why he believes languages should no longer be seen as a ‘soft skill’.
Last month, I was invited to address The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages session on behalf of the Globalisation and Localisation Association (GALA), a global trade body representing 27,000 language service providers. I took the opportunity to deliver an important message: the deepening language skills shortage is affecting UK competitiveness abroad. In order for UK businesses to continue to trade successfully in coming years, the nation’s attitude to languages must change.
No longer should languages be dismissed as ‘soft skills’. It is essential that languages are intertwined with the core STEM skills driving the global economy. As business becomes increasingly borderless in years to come, with languages other than English likely to become the lingua franca, the language skills and cultural competencies of our business leaders will become critical to our economic health. Without language the global economy simply can’t function; monolingual cultures will lose out.
It was estimated recently that the language skills deficit costs UK £48bn a year (3.5% of GDP)
The crisis in language education in the UK is well documented: 2013 saw a 40% drop in universities offering language courses and the number of UK students taking language A-Levels hitting an all time low. It was estimated recently that the language skills deficit costs UK £48bn a year (3.5% of GDP).
Whilst the UK is finally making some steps in the right direction (for example, with languages becoming a compulsory part of the curriculum for primary school children aged seven plus from September) I believe this to be too little and too late. It could take between 20 and 40 years in all reality for teachers to be trained, youngsters to be taught and for business people with the right combination of language skills and cultural competencies to emerge to lead our businesses.
At present we simply do not have the linguistic talent in this country to even fill the jobs that currently exist. My business is based in rural Oxfordshire, but only a handful of my staff are British nationals and have come through the British education system. This is for no reason other than we find candidates from Europe generally have stronger skills in the required areas.
However, the point I would like to make is that it is not just the Language Service Industry that has cause for concern here; the language skills deficit is set to affect British competitiveness abroad generally. Considering the seriousness of these consequences it is surprising there is less awareness of the problem or action being taken to address it.
“it is not just the Language Service Industry that has cause for concern here; the language skills deficit is set to affect British competitiveness abroad generally”
Whilst it remains an uphill battle, it is good to know that there are several strong initiatives out there currently making headway. These include ‘Languages for All’: a strategic effort, spearheaded by the University of Maryland and supported by the British Academy to widen language learning, resulting in an advanced language proficiency in the workforce. There is also what has been dubbed the ‘Global Talent Program’, spearheaded by GALA and primarily sponsored by Manpower Group. This sets out to create an environment in both the UK and US where business and education work together toward job growth and economic competitiveness.
Should you be interested in reading more about the language skills deficit and the opportunities and challenges facing the Language Services industry, you can download a PDF of my presentation to the APPG here.