Key Findings: Languages in business – 70% of companies do not keep record of staff language skills


LRE developed a survey to explore the language strategies of companies, to find out whether they prioritise and support language training for their employees, and also to establish the range of languages used to communicate with customers and in promotional materials. The criteria investigated are divided into three main categories: general company language strategies, internal language strategies, and external language strategies.

■ Data was collected from a selected set of companies based in cities across all countries/regions and 484 companies were surveyed in total. Four business sectors were targeted (banks, hotels, building construction companies and supermarkets). Overall, although the number of hotels participating was relatively high compared to other sectors, there was a good balance of sectors.

■ In the area of general language strategies, a quarter of the companies surveyed have an explicit languages strategy in place and over half take languages into account when recruiting. A quarter regularly encourage mobility of staff for language learning and development of intercultural awareness. However, 70% do not keep a record of staff language skills, and very few take advantage of EU programmes for language learning.

■ Widespread provision of language training is reported for business English in 27% of the companies surveyed, with 14% offering support in the national language for non-native speakers, and 12% for other languages. A relatively small percentage have reward or promotion schemes for language learning, with 11% reporting that it is widespread for
business English and only 5% for the national language and other languages. The number of companies forging partnerships with the education sector to develop the language skills of their staff also appears modest, with a quarter doing so either regularly or occasionally for English, 17% for the national language for non-native speakers, and
14% for other languages.

■ In the sectors surveyed just under half of the companies use business English widely in addition to the national language in external communications, and as many as 30% use other languages in addition to English and the national language on their websites.

■ In ranked order, German, Russian, French, Spanish and Italian emerge as the most commonly used languages other than English by the companies surveyed, reflecting the strong internal market in Europe. Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Turkish are also valued and supported by some of the companies surveyed, although perhaps higher prioritisation
of these might be expected.

The comparative findings presented above highlight a multitude of interesting trends in policies and practices for multi/plurilingualism in the European context. While some countries/regions have highly developed policies and practices in specific domains, others need to develop further if they wish to align themselves more closely with European recommendations and create more language-rich societies. Of all the language domains
researched, it is in primary and secondary education where most efforts are being made to promote multi/plurilingualism. However, in early language learning, and in the sectors of further and higher education, the media, public services and spaces and business, the LRE research findings suggest that the officially declared commitment of European countries/regions to support multi/plurilingualism still needs to be turned into action plans and practices at the local and institutional level.

Read also about an example of a past LRE workshop that focussed on business and education. Also a post about languages being an important intercultural tool in business.

Website, site web, sitio web – What to consider when designing a multilingual website

Recently, I was looking to buy a bike in Berlin. First, I searched online and made a list of about five shops that I could visit in person. Businesses with no website were no use as I couldn’t see the types of bike on offer, so going there in person could be a wasted trip. Bilingual websites in German and English were appealing to me as, although I speak German, I am not technically minded so felt more comfortable reading up on bike specifications in English.
I may have missed out on some fantastic local bike shops that were not on the internet, but I doubt that I am alone in using the internet in this way. Willi Brandt, former Chancellor of West Germany famously said:

If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen

Nowadays with internet browsing and online shopping becoming more and more integral to our daily lives and with a lack of language skills leading to an estimated 11% of small and medium sized businesses losing contracts having a website in the language of your target customers is vital.
However, creating multilingual websites is not a simple task. There are several challenges to consider. Which languages will you include? This will largely depend on your target audience and where your company is based. The website will have to be regularly updated in each language, so will you use an external translator for this or are there the linguistic skills within your company? How much text will be included on the website? Different languages and alphabets take up more or less space than others, and what about languages that read from right to left rather than left to right? 
This should not put you off – a professional, well-designed and accessible website will help rather than hinder your business. Those of us working on Language Rich Europe will also have to consider this, as the official project website (which launches in 2012) will be in over 20 languages.  
In his article Building multilingual websites, Simon Ager provides us with some food for thought, which you too might find useful. If you have any other tips for designing an effective multilingual website, please share in the Comments section below.

Expert: Languages ‘tool for more business’

Martin Hope, Director of the Language Rich Europe project, spoke to Outi Alapekkala at EurActiv in an interview about the project and more specifically about language and businesses. Hope also mentions the controversy raised by Language Rich Europe and the importance for businesses of hiring multilingual staff.

A fantastic language policy for business is where languages are supported and encouraged.

English is a tool, but it only goes part of the way towards creating intercultural understanding and complete relationship building. You have to learn each other’s language – not only English.

You can read the interview on EurActiv’s page.