Crossing cultures. The value of foreign languages in the workplace
At the end of a week that has taken a somewhat sad, messy and dramatic turn in the United Kingdom I have written something positive about the mingling of cultures and of course the learning of languages. I also apologise to all Europeans for the misguided choices made by many of my fellow countrymen in Thursday's referendum. I truly believe that most of those who voted to leave the EU did so mainly as a protest vote because they feel abandoned by the austerity policies of the present government. I would like to think that the majority of us over here believe that the European Union is a great thing for both the economy and the promotion of peace.
When I was seven my parents bought me a colourful French language book full of great words and pictures. My mother enjoyed watching French films (with English subtitles) and the novels of Françoise Sagan though she could only read them in English as she only knew a few words of French.
Meanwhile I was fascinated by my new book and worked hard to decipher the meaning of those unfamiliar words. I couldn't wait to know what they sounded like. I had never been abroad at that point but was intrigued by the fact that people who lived in different parts of the world said things in a way that we couldn't understand. Luckily for me and my thirst for knowledge they taught basic French at my primary school, and I soon came to enjoy my French book a whole lot more. Of course there was no internet, youtube or cheap air travel in the 1970s so language learning took even more dedication and effort than it does today. I remember well trying to tune into France Inter on longwave radio!
Forty years later the world is a very different place. Languages and cultures continually cross borders, and as we are forever being told, we live in a global society.
But why exactly are foreign languages useful to you and your business?
Firstly, knowing a foreign language can make travel easier and more fun. Being able to ask for directions easily in a foreign country can make that business trip so much easier. Being able and willing to speak in foreign languages inspires respect and admiration abroad.
Another advantage of knowing foreign languages is that you have a wider potential customer base. Certainly not every business is going to need foreign language speakers every day but they may well come in useful at some point.
Staff who have spent time and effort learning a foreign language have the capacity to work long and hard. Learning a language takes perseverence and dedication. You don't have to be a genius but you do have to stick with it, practise, and exercise your brain in all sorts of ways. I often refer to it when tutoring as mental gymnastics. Remember, one of the main reasons that anglophones do not often study foreign languages to an advanced level at school or university is because they feel they are a lot of work for little reward, and that there are many much less time consuming subjects to be taken that may lead to better paid jobs in future.
It is a fact that people who learn and start to speak foreign languages have to be courageous. Speaking a foreign language for the first time in a real life situation is a bit like going on stage. You are performing your new skill for the first time in public.
People who learn foreign languages are very culturally aware. Different countries have different forms of etiquette and customs. For example in France you must address a person as Madame or Monsieur if you don't know their name. Hence language learners have usually paid attention to the literature, theatre, traditions and philosophies of foreign nations. They have a natural feel for the way your overseas or foreign clients think and operate.
It is a fact that bilingual or multilingual staff are often more aware of spelling and grammar than monolinguals, and very attentive to accuracy in general . They have carefully honed listening skills and immense powers of concentration.
Additionally by employing staff from different cultures and countries it demonstrates that you and your company are diverse and forward thinking . As well as employing native English speakers who have learned foreign languages you may wish to hire non-native English speakers thereby making your business even more diverse and globalized, and able to deal with possible overseas opportunities and foreign clients.
But what if you don't have any proficient foreign language speakers in your company and don't think it would be worth hiring people specifically for that purpose? You could always send a few willing current members of staff on refresher courses from time to time, or hire an in-house tutor every so often. Many people possess a little rusty knowledge of at least one foreign language that is just waiting to be brought back to life; and at least a small percentage of those given the opportunity will progress to a reasonable level of ability.
In this century we really need to embrace the fact that we live in a world that is more and more a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. This isn't just true in the capital cities any longer. And besides languages are for life - a healthy habit that's addictive.