Companies that learn the language of the countries they do business with will thrive in the future, making it easier to build trust relationships and helping them to understand how people think, according to Martin Hope, head of an EU project called 'Language Rich Europe'. He spoke to EURACTIV in an interview.
A good language policy for business involves recruiting people who can speak more than one language and rewarding employees for taking language classes, said Hope, who is also director of the British Council's EU office in Brussels.
But it does not end there, said Hope, who says the companies that "will do the best" in the 21st and 22nd Centuries are those that think "strategically" about the languages they need to trade with other countries, he said.
"English is not enough because if you want to do business with Russia, for example, merely using English as a common language is not going to build a strong enough relationship," said Hope, who is fluent in Russian. "And the whole point about learning languages is not about transactions – it is about building relationships and understanding a different culture," he said.
If you speak the language of foreign businesspeople, firstly you show that you are interested in their country's culture, which builds trust, he went on. But knowing a language will also help you to understand the mentality of people – an extremely valuable asset when you know that selling and marketing products is about "understanding how people think".
"Of course we [the British Council] promote English and we believe that communicating in English has helped to create understanding between people of different countries," he said.
But while the language of Shakespeare is a tool, "it only goes part of the way towards creating intercultural understanding and complete relationship building. You have to learn each other's language – not only English," Hope insisted.
EU multilingualism strategy to be reviewed in 2012
Hope is the director of Language Rich Europe (LRE), a project which looks at how far EU countries have gone since 2008 EU Council Conclusions on multilingualism, which set out very clear recommendations for member states and the European Commission on the matter.
The Commission's Communication on Multilingualism, which set out a cross-cutting policy framework for the EU's multilingualism policy, also dates back to 2008 but is up for review next year.
In an effort to contribute to the 2012 review, the LRE project is also looking at the language policies of companies, public services and the media.
Language Rich Europe
Hope explained that the 'rich' in the LRE title has a double meaning: first, Europe is rich with its own languages and cultures, but it is also rich in the sense that if everybody learns languages, then it is good for Europe's economy as a means of creating more business.
The consortium partners have developed "quite a detailed questionnaire which is a tool for member states to evaluate themselves," he said, stressing that thanks to this framework, countries will be able to improve and develop in areas where they have gaps.
An "overall meta indicator" will uncover the extent to which countries keep national databases on language diversity, he said. Such databases track the languages spoken in a country and the number of speakers, something very important for designing good language policies and organising services in any society, Hope said.
Among the topics being investigated by the consortium is support for students in learning a foreign language and the extent to which they are encouraged to learn at school.
LRE also looks at whether national media are open to multilingualism, whether there are TV programmes or newspapers in a foreign or regional language, and whether foreign films are subtitled or dubbed, Hope explained.
But "we don't want the survey to turn into a ranking, a competition," Hope stressed, adding that "our study simply provides an indication of the extent to which countries are making an effort to develop policies and practices which recognise and support multilingualism".
"We hope that it leads to greater awareness-raising and some policy change."