4th November 2013

Lost in Translation?

By Michael Wood on Monday November 4, 2013

According to a recent report by Education Guardian, the number of universities offering modern languages courses in the UK has fallen from 93 in 1998 to just 56 in 2014, a drop of almost 40 per cent, due to a fall in take up among school leavers. Despite this, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes that poor linguistic skills among the working population are holding back our economic recovery, acting as “a tax on UK trade” and leaving our major brands unable to communicate with key international audiences.

As a foreign language graduate myself, ça m’inquiète! In a globalised world and in an economy that is increasingly reliant on trade with the EU and the ascendant BRICs economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, why do so few school leavers consider languages worthy of further study? Why are the career benefits of learning a foreign tongue not being successfully promoted to our nation’s young people?

Speaking another language is not simply about being able to order a beer or ask where the train station is when you are on holiday, it offers you a whole new world to explore. It opens up new cultures, viewpoints and a different way of thinking to you that I wouldn’t trade for the world. And, most importantly, multilingualism makes it easier to do business with potential customers in new markets, a skill that should be indispensable for an outward-looking UK PLC.

Now, as more and more British companies enter new international markets, they will have to communicate the benefits of their products or services to new customers with little or no prior knowledge of their brand. While many British businesses achieve this every day with customers in the UK, the same tactics will not necessarily work in different countries. A new communications strategy for establishing their brand in new territory, tailored for that specific media landscape and market, must be developed.

Team members, or a partner communications agency, based either in the UK or the target country, with knowledge and experience of the local language and culture, should be integral in this process, as they will understand the cultural and linguistic faux pas that must be avoided to develop a marketing programme in line with the brand’s key messaging. On a more practical level, multilingual professionals, and PR agencies, are best placed to research the media landscape and to talk with journalists in their langue maternelle, helping to build the kind of strong relationships that secure positive coverage.

However, if there is a shrinking pool of multilingual people of working age, how can businesses build a rapport with journalists in overseas markets? Google Translate and other online translation tools, while they have improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years, cannot offer the nuance and subtlety needed to develop trust with the media. The reliance of my monoglot friends on such tools has left them red faced on holiday before now, believe me.

The international economic landscape is changing, and we cannot rely on the current exalted status of English as the global lingua franca to keep UK PLC in the game. It is more crucial than ever that businesses recruit employees, or engage partner agencies, adept at communicating in multiple languages to ensure that their brand messaging is conveyed accurately and effectively, and with a strategy appropriate for the target market. Businesses, and the nation as a whole, need to invest in modern languages education now, and work harder to promote the career benefits to young people, to help protect our economic interests in the years to come.