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What's New in the EU: EC promotes investment in language skills
Each year, thousands of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts as a result of their lack of language skills, according to a study commissioned by the European Commission in 2006. The survey was conducted by CILT, the UK National Center for Languages.
The European Commission therefore concluded that there is enormous potential for small businesses in Europe to increase their total exports if they invest more in languages and develop coherent language strategies. Recent research shows that companies that enhance their language skills can better exploit the business opportunities in the EU's internal market, which, with nearly half a billion people, is the world's largest.
On Monday, the European Commission met in Lisbon to discuss investment strategies in language skills and intercultural competence of employees with leading European businessmen. Commissioner Leonard Orban inaugurated the "Business Forum," consisting of business leaders and managers of human resources, which will focus on the partnership between business, education and public authorities as well as other factors that will enhance language learning in favor of the economy.
The Forum, chaired by Viscount Etienne Davignon, Minister of State and Chairman of the Board of Brussels Airlines, was launched at the September Brussels Conference on linguistic skills and competitiveness. It will bring together a group of top European managers who will identify how companies can make operational use of language management as part of their efforts to maximize their economic performance.
"We want our citizens to be able to travel around Europe easily, and to be able to take up opportunities to work and study in all corners of the EU, as well as to seize opportunities with companies trading with other parts of the world," Orban said. He stressed that the aim of the Forum is to produce a "report with recommendations aimed at improving the competitiveness of companies as well as the employability and mobility of workers."
Joining Etienne Davignon in the Forum are other prominent business representatives including Winfried Albrink, Head of Training for Henkel, Jean-Paul Dubreuil, Chairman and Managing Director of the Dubreuil group, Henning Dyremose, Chairman and former Managing Director of TDC (Danish Telecom), Sabina Klimek, manager in Deloitte Business Consulting, Peter Mathews, Chairman and Managing Director of Black Country Metals Limited, Luisa Todini, President of the Italian holding Group Todini Finanziaria Spa and An De Jonghe, CEO of Ulysses Consulting, an executive search agency for the ICT industry.
The Brussels conference in September made a number of recommendations, which include motivating immigrants to learn the language of the host country, showing that language learning can be fun as well as making sense and investing in local educational platforms.
The impetus for the stress on pumping up language skills comes from the results of a recent study called "Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise," which demonstrated that lack of language skills leads to loss of business. The study was the first attempt on a European-wide level to estimate the cost to EU business of not having foreign language skills. The data in the study is based on a sample of 2,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Europe, correlated with information from 30 multinational companies and a group of experts from the countries involved, and supplemented by a set of case studies.
The study demonstrated that companies that have a strategic approach to multilingual communication are able to boost their export sales by more than 40 percent compared to competitors who do not employ formal language strategies. It also noted that even though English is in the top position as the "lingua franca" for international business, there is also an increasing demand for other languages. While approximately 25% of the companies surveyed felt that they still needed to improve their English, a similar proportion felt the need to expand into German or French, with Spanish and Russian also featuring prominently in the ranking. Many companies, particularly large ones - also stressed their need for non-European languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Urdu, as they seek to expand into non-European markets.
Nearly half of the exporting SMEs surveyed are planning to expand into new foreign markets in the next three years. Consequently, they predict an increase in their demand for language skills to meet this expansion. However, instead of investing in language training themselves, they prefer to look to the Member States' education and training systems in order to provide them with employees that possess the right language skills, or they simply look in the labor market for geographically mobile people who have the required language skills.
The research shows that these responses are increasingly inadequate. A significant proportion of European companies are losing export business through lack of language skills and intercultural skills. The study suggests that increasing investment to develop language skills across the EU would produce far-reaching economic benefits, especially in terms of a positive impact on SME productivity and export performance.
The ultimate output of the Forum should be a report with recommendations aiming to improve the competitiveness of companies and the employability and mobility of workers and the raising of language awareness. During the Lisbon meeting, a work program for the coming months was adopted.
The author is the head of the International Department at Joseph Shem-Tov Law Firm
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