Is a Languages Strategy Essential for Britain’s Economy to Prosper Post Brexit?

By Gabrielle Hogan-Brun

Britain hopes to draw on the trade relationships of the former Commonwealth to grow its economy post Brexit. Could this place too much reliance on English as the language of trade? What do we know about the benefits of a languages strategy for the economy? Gabrielle Hogan-Brun explores.

 

Wake-Up Call

Following the EU Referendum there was a feeling that Britain could rely on a far larger range of economies post Brexit, in particular trade relationships with the former Commonwealth (presumably through English). Some people are in support of this proposition, others find Empire 2.0 a poor substitute for the EU.1 Or has the rest of the world moved on? After all, Australia, New Zealand and Canada only take around 3% of the UK’s exports, and the US is promoting a phase of trade protectionism.

Seeking fresh trade relationships outside the Commonwealth, Britain may well come up against a language barrier. With growing markets from Brazil to China, and from Turkey through Indonesia to Vietnam, more languages are going to feature more prominently in commercial exchange patterns worldwide. Hence, as the global economy diversifies, the role of English as the language of international communication may well change. A possible characteristic of a Globalisation 2.0,2 such diversity could further challenge western, liberal market-based democratic values.

Can the UK afford, post Brexit, to ignore the multilingual reality in this diversifying global market? Should it consider how to communicate with new trade partners overseas after it loses its reliance on the multilingual capabilities of the EU? Could Brexit be a wake-up call for a languages strategy? Indeed, does the UK have the political will for an education policy to grow a languages capacity?

 

Opportunity Cost

British businesses already suffer setbacks in export markets due to a deficient multilingual skills base. According to figures recently released by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, the UK economy is losing around £50 billion a year in failed contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce.3 They also show how this shortfall in foreign language skills leads to a reluctance in tackling new markets: over 80% of small to medium sized enterprises operate only in English, yet over half say language skills would help expand business opportunities and build export growth.4

The above figures suggest that loss of turnover and profitability is in a large part affected by communication barriers across language boundaries. Now that Britain is leaving the EU, there will be greater pressure to address its language related economic shortfall. Arguably, without a languages strategy, trade relations and export performance will suffer even more post Brexit.

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A recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey report on how cultural and language barriers affect business confirms that effective cross-border communication and collaboration are critical for the financial success of companies with international aspirations.5 Even if competitive costs are part of the deal on offer multilingual astuteness and intercultural sensitivity can be critical at the negotiating table. As Richard Hardie, former chairman of the investment bank UBS, puts it: “A deep understanding of foreign languages is often essential to the combination of cajolery and seduction many companies require in their international negotiations.”6

This means that native English speakers cannot simply take advantage of the rest of the world’s desire to learn their language. Just as monolingual Britons will not grasp the subtleties of interactions in international business, they do not know what gets lost in translation either, whether this is carried out by humans or electronically. Indeed, over half of the above survey’s respondents admits that misunderstandings have stood in the way of major cross-border transactions, incurring significant losses for their company. These tangible examples of key trade negotiations lost in translation point to the need for languages in business.

Arguably, Brexit should give a strong economic incentive for the support of language training across all levels of society to help make a success of a new set of aspired trade links across the globe. At the policy level, this would require commitment to, and long-term strategic investment in, languages education at school as well as in further and higher education. For more immediate returns on investment, companies looking to trade overseas would also benefit from support with language skills training. Similarly, as I argue in Linguanomics,7 the UK already has a large number of individuals whose bilingual skills can be harnessed to meet various language demands.

 

Diversity as a Resource

But now the future supply of this language resource looks uncertain because the UK government is planning to control the numbers of incoming foreign nationals. This move ignores that cultural diversity is a resource and creative force. Yet ancient civilisations, the Aztecs, the Chinese, the Romans knew about the benefits of hosting people from distant places as cultural brokers, to exchange ideas and gain access to resources.

The future supply of this language resource looks uncertain because the UK government is planning to control the numbers of incoming foreign nationals. This move ignores that cultural diversity is a resource and creative force.

 

Today a multicultural workforce is a key resource in any organisation and can, if managed appropriately, have creative benefits that add value. Workplace observations show that mixed-language groups have a propensity to jointly find original solutions for practical problems.8 This is because participants activate different languages, thought patterns and knowledge systems as multiple keys to new concepts. Hence many companies around the world are strategically recruiting a culturally diverse talent pool to grow their organisation’s intellectual capital and cultivate a culture of innovation. Yet it seems already that Britain risks to compromise its competitive edge if it goes ahead to impose restrictions on EU citizens.

A recent testimony deploring the possible effects of Brexit limiting the transfer of knowledge, ideas and influence comes from an open letter by leading British architects.9 This warns that leaving the EU will damage the industry if practices across Britain cannot continue to employ EU staff. The letter states that this is about “a cross-fertilisation of cultures and of thinking that is really important in the creative sector”. It further stresses that “different people from different countries have a very particular and different approach to offer [which] is vital to our business” and that cultural diversity “contributes to the economy” across a range of cultural and creative industries.

 

Returns on Investment

Leaving the infrastructure of the EU could give Britain a strong incentive for support with language education and training across all levels of society. English only will not be effective in sustaining future economic growth as the country aims to connect with fresh markets overseas.10 Hence the government needs to commit to long-term investment in a range of foreign languages to match the changing language demands post Brexit.

Empirical evidence from the growing field of language economics suggest that, when a language strategy is put in place, the benefits often exceed the costs.

 

Empirical evidence from the growing field of language economics suggest that, when a language strategy is put in place, the benefits often exceed the costs.11 Moreover, research confirms the economic value of growing a multi-language skills base. There is now an opportunity and a need in Britain to channel existing bilingual resources, to introduce foreign languages as a compulsory subject in school and in vocational training and to provide language support for companies.

Lessons can be learnt from the past. For millennia, civilisations around the world have benefitted from opening up to the stimulus of other cultures and ideas.12 In preparing to leave the EU, Britain should note that trade and languages have always gone hand in hand, offering opportunities for expansion and development. As history shows, ignoring this will almost certainly lead to economic stagnation.

 

Featured Image: People towards the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and The Houses of Parliament wrapped in Union flags on June 2016 in London. ©  Odd Andersen AFP

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Gabrielle Hogan-Brun is the author of Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism?” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). She is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, UK, and has worked with various European organisations on language policy in multilingual settings. She is Series Editor of Palgrave Studies in Minority Languages and Communities.

 

References

1. Blitz, J. (2017) Post-Brexit delusions about Empire 2.0. Financial Times, 17 March 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/bc29987e-034e-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9
2. Barber, L. (2016) Globalisation 2.0 – an optimistic outlook. Financial Times, 24 February 2016. https://www.ft.com/content/3dffc316-bad3-11e5-b151-8e15c9a029fb
3. Quoting Baroness Coussins, in: Richardson, H. (2014) Modern languages “recovery programme” urged by MPs. BBC News, 14 July 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28269496
4. Brexit and Languages: A checklist for Government negotiators and officials. All-Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (APPMFL). http://brexitlanguagesappgmfl.weebly.com/uploads/9/2/0/9/92099188/appgmfl-mfl_brexit_embargoto17oct.pdf
5. Competing across borders. How cultural and communication barriers affect business.The Economist. Intelligence Report. Perspectives, 25 April, 2012. http://perspectives.eiu.com/economic-development/competing-across-borders

6. Quoted in: Reisz, M. (2014) Language degrees: when the words are not enough. Times Higher Education, 11 December 2014. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/language-degrees-when-the-words-are-not-enough/2017413.article
7. In: Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? (2017: 79 f). London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic; see also: “This Post-Brexit Linguanomics”, in: Kelly, M.H. (Ed.) (2017) Languages after Brexit. How the UK speaks to the world. London/New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
8. Grin, F., Sfreddo, C. and Vaillancourt, F. (2010) The Economics of the Multilingual Workplace. New York/London: Routledge.
9. Rogers, R., Alsop, W. et al. (2017) Leading architects: EU nationals must not be used as a Brexit negotiating chip. The Guardian, Letters, 14 May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/14/eu-nationals-must-not-be-negotiating-chip
10. Echoing this sentiment across the Atlantic is US economist Lawrence Summers’ Tweet (2017, January 8). @LH Summers 7:45AM. https://twitter.com/LHSummers/status/818121551501467648.
11. Examples are Switzerland, Quebec and Catalonia. For more information see: Gazzola, M. and Wickström, B-A (Eds) (2016) The Economics of Language Policy. Cambridge MA; MIT Press.
12. Hutton, W. (2016) Trade is the lifeblood of humanity. Closed doors lead to closed minds. The Guardian, 13 November 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/13/america-trade-deals-donald-trump-nafta-isolationism

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