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Why SMEs need to change their attitude to languages

By Dr Natalie Wilmot, Associate Professor in International Business at the University of Bradford

Brits have often been regarded as lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages, but in business, a reliance on using English as a common language can be disadvantageous and even disastrous.

We all know the differences between some common words between British English and American English.

But in business, there is an illusion of understanding that just because you are dealing with another English-speaking country, you will be able to understand each other.

During research for my book, Language Management: From Bricolage to Strategy in British Companies, one small-to-medium enterprise (SME) told me about a huge issue when one of their partners in India had used the word ‘prepone.’

As we don’t use that word here, the British company wrongly assumed they meant ‘postpone.’

However, the partners meant the opposite – they wanted something brought forwards not pushed back.

If you’re trading with Commonwealth countries, like Nigeria or India, you can be speaking very different types of English.

In fact, one of the general managers I spoke to, who had worked internationally, said it’s often easier to deal with people who don’t speak English as a first language because when you know you can’t understand each other, everyone makes more of an effort to clarify what has been said.

What it comes down to, is the need for intercultural training for managers and those in export roles and looking at small changes you can make, such as sending a written agenda in advance of meetings and a summary afterwards, so people can check they have understood what’s been discussed.

And what about when you’re not speaking the same language?

Not being able to communicate with foreign partners can have catastrophic consequences.

I use an old example in my book that came from the Department for International Trade in which a British company was going into bankruptcy and when the receivers went in, they found a fax in a drawer from a German company with an order big enough to save the whole company.

Nothing had been done about it because no one could understand it. Estimates show the UK could be missing out on up to 3.5 per cent of GDP of trade because of a lack of language skills.

If you’re a small company wanting to work directly with international customers or other small companies, you can’t rely on there being an English speaker.

One of the people I interviewed pointed out that, if you only speak English, you will end up working with distributors purely because they speak the same language, not because they are the most qualified or appropriate people to promote your products.

I’ve found smaller companies who branch into international trade often do so simply because they discover an employee speaks another language and they fall into that opportunity, rather than having any strategy to branch out.

Larger companies, who have established international networks, are more likely to hire employees who can speak second or third languages. Plus, they have the luxury of paying for translators and interpreters.

But translation services are really expensive, and not something the average SME can rely on regularly.

One alternative is to use Google Translate and that might be good enough for the odd email, but if you’re looking to translate a product brochure or website, any errors could damage your brand.

I spoke to members of a tiny company of three people which sold products abroad.

They decided to translate their website so their buyers could understand it.

The problem was, the phone started ringing with buyers who expected them to speak five different languages.

To get around this, they printed out a few useful phrases, such as ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak French, can you send an email?’ and posted them around the office to use whenever the issue arose.

Other small businesses will rely on a network of friends and family, turning to whoever can speak a foreign language as and when required.

One company told me they had a client in Poland who was entirely reliant on the owner’s English-speaking girlfriend.

While this sort of arrangement might work, it’s also precarious. What if the employee splits up with the girlfriend? Then you could face losing your English trade.

It’s fine to start off with using those resources, but then you really need a longer term strategy. You can’t hang your business on one individual.

Nor can businesses expect other countries to speak English. If you look at places like Spain, less than 30% of the population speak English according to a national poll: speak English. Other countries are not always as Anglophone as you might think.

Fewer pupils are taking a foreign language at GCSE, it’s no longer a mandatory requirement. So, then there are fewer doing languages at A-level and at University.

This means there is a reduced pool of potential employees who can speak another language, and so they naturally then command higher wages, which might be out of reach for SMEs.

With Brexit, there will now be fewer people coming from Europe to work in the UK, so the pool decreases even further.

Brexit also means UK companies will be looking further afield for their trading partners.

If you can’t speak Spanish, you may be missing out on huge potential markets in Latin America. Similarly markets in Francophone Africa may be inaccessible if you don’t speak French.

It all goes back to education. In the EU, there is an objective of having all EU citizens speaking two languages in addition to their first language.

We need to embed foreign languages into our education system, right from a young age.

And if we want to speak to the world’s businesses, we need to stop expecting the world to speak our language.

· Language Management: From Bricolage to Strategy in British Companies by Dr Natalie Wilmot, published by Multilingual Matters, is available now.