Multilingualism means business

30 Apr

There are many reasons as to why multilingualism is considered valuable. In terms of language policies (e.g. whether a government decides to endorse multilingualism), more often than not encouraging multilingualism needs to be financially justifiable. Only then will multilingualism be endorsed through policy.

But how does one know whether multilingualism is indeed more profitable than monolingualism? Is it really the case that a multilingual population will increase a country’s economic prosperity? Does a person who speaks more than one language earn more than a person who speaks only one language? These questions are difficult to answer, especially because multilingualism is closely tied to other factors, such as level of education. One way of examining the financial benefits of multilingualism is to ask employers whether they value multilingualism in their companies. If they do, the assumption is that this is most likely because they associate multilingualism with an increase in profit.

The CBI / Pearson education and skills surveys are large scale questionnaires which examine what employers are looking for in their workforce. In the present blog entry, some of the 2012 CBI / Pearson survey’s findings on multilingualism are reported. In brief, the survey suggests that employers consider a multilingual workforce to be beneficial. For example, “[n]early three quarters (72%) of businesses say they value foreign language skills among their employees, particularly in helping build relations with clients, customers and suppliers (39%)” (p. 55). The report also revealed that companies which are export orientated are more likely to value a multilingual workforce than companies which are less export orientated. “[O]ver half of firms in manufacturing (59%) and in engineering, hi-tech/IT and science (55%) see foreign language skills among staff as helpful in building relations with overseas contacts, while a third report foreign language skills as assisting staff mobility within their organisation (33% in manufacturing and 32% in engineering, hi-tech/IT and science)” (p. 56). Indeed, many employers are actively recruiting new staff which are proficient in foreign languages, whilst other employers are addressing the issue by “raising the language skills of their existing staff, using private providers (21%), FE colleges (6%) or in-house language training (15%)” (p. 57). European languages are considered to be the most useful (by those valuing staff with foreign language skills) with German, French and Spanish respectively rated as the most useful foreign languages. Moreover, “[l]anguage skills geared to business in China and the Middle East feature prominently (of those valuing staff with foreign language skills, 25% rate Mandarin as useful, 12% value Cantonese and 19% Arabic). Findings from the survey also reflect the need for language skills that can help to manage workforces in the UK from non-English (e.g. Polish) speaking backgrounds.

The findings from the CBI / Pearson education and skills survey most likely influenced Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, in his recent decision to make foreign language learning compulsory from the age of seven. This policy initiative was largely endorsed throughout the UK, and certainly is by me. Perhaps, however, in addition to this initiative to increase the learning of foreign languages in the UK, it would similarly be wise to harness the extant multilingual resources in the UK through encouraging the maintenance of immigrant languages. For example, under Michael Gove’s plans, primary schools will offer lessons in French, Mandarin and Spanish, amongst other languages. Indeed, these languages are already widely spoken in immigrant communities in the UK. According to the 2011 Census results, 147 000 people in England and Wales already speak French as their main language; 141 000 speak a form of Chinese as their main language; and 120 000 speak Spanish as a main language.

From my vantage point, it seems contradictory to encourage the learning of these languages in schools without encouraging their maintenance in immigrant populations. Moreover, I would predict that – all else being equal – employers value these languages as such in their companies.

Esther de Leeuw

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