Expert: Languages ‘tool for more business’


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.

Martin Hope is project director of Language Rich Europe, an EU co-funded project led by the British Council in partnership with the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC). The project seeks to evaluate member states' progress in achieving EU recommendations on multilingualism.

Hope is also director of British Council's EU office in Brussels.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Outi Alapekkala.

What does your project title, 'Language Rich Europe', stand for?

The title places double meaning on the word rich – Europe is rich with languages, has many languages and many cultures. But it also means rich in the sense that if we all learn languages then it is good for the prosperity of Europe, meaning language is a way of becoming rich economically.

So there is cultural richness and economic richness. But it is interesting to see how different project partner countries have translated the title in different ways – because it demonstrates that you cannot translate literally. Our publication will be in 22 languages.

What is your project about?

In terms of the content, we are trying to see how far each country has got along its multilingualism path. Because in 2008, under the French EU Presidency, EU Council Conclusions on multilingualism set out very clear recommendations to member states and to the [European] Commission to follow up. The Commission did a communication on multilingualism in 2008 as well.

We are looking at how each country has done. We developed a quite a detailed questionnaire which is a tool for member states to evaluate themselves.

So your work is contributing to the 2012 review of the EU's multilingualism strategy?

Yes, it's all contributing to that and we are looking at a range of indicators in education, public services, business and the media.

There will also be an overall meta indicator which tells us the extent to which countries keep national databases on language diversity.

What is a national database on language diversity?

A database which tracks the languages that are spoken and how many speakers there are, because to have good language policies you need to know this. In the UK the 2011 census has language questions in it to find out what languages are spoken in communities and this will enable us to organise our services in a certain way.

A classic example is signage on streets. If you are attempting to be multilingual and put signs in different languages it makes sense to know which languages you need to put the signs in based on the population and the speakers of those languages.

If you want to put books in your library in different languages you need to know how many speakers there are in your community. Of course you can guess, but that is not very scientific.

We want to see, and our research will uncover, to what extent countries are keeping these records.

The questions we are asking provide the framework for countries to improve and develop themselves in areas where they have gaps. 

How do you structure your work?

We are looking at education, public services, business and the media.

In education we are looking at pre-primary and primary education, secondary education, vocational training and higher education. We are evaluating the support  provided for students in national, regional, immigrant and foreign languages.

So in England, for example, how much support is provided to people who don't speak English very well – that might be migrants, but also English people who don't speak and write English very well because they have learning difficulties.

We are also looking at immigrant languages – to what extent newcomers are allowed or encouraged to speak and learn their home language at school – that's quite important.

There is research that shows that if you are encouraged to speak your own home language at some stage at school, not all the time of course, then that builds your confidence, because your home language is recognised and felt to be important.

As for foreign languages – we are looking at the extent to which students are encouraged to learn foreign languages at school. Is it obligatory or is it optional, and which languages are offered?

The fourth type of languages we are looking at is regional languages. For example, if you live in Corsica – how is the language of Corsu dealt with at school? Do you have lessons in Corsican or in French? In Wales, what are the language policies for the promotion of Welsh in schools? How does the bilingual education system work?

So we are looking at all those language types. We believe this survey is one of the most comprehensive ever done and also one of the most complicated – and it is quite controversial.

Why is the study controversial?

Countries don't usually like to be told that they are not doing things right, or being assessed. They always think their context is different and of course to an extent they are right. Comparisons are difficult. Plus of course nobody likes so-called 'Commission creep' from Brussels – the European Commission trying to have influence on policies where they don't officially have competence. And our project is co-funded by the Commission!  

The real purpose of the project is in any case awareness-raising and knowledge sharing based on the findings of the research. So it shouldn't be too controversial after all.

So what is the positive influence being sought – multilingualism?

Well this is the other thing. It is assumed that multilingualism is a good thing.

In terms of our evaluation, of course, you are going to score higher as a country if you do promote and encourage multilingualism. If you don't teach foreign languages and nurture immigrant ones, if you suppress regional languages and if you give no support to the national language, you will not score as highly.

The controversial bit is that what we don't want to do is for this to become very competitive, with countries saying 'I'm better than you'. So all that 'competitive thing' is not viewed very positively.

We want this to be a learning tool, a developmental tool, for decision-makers to say 'these are a very good set of criteria that we can use to benchmark ourselves against and we can improve year on year'. Because what we'd like to do is research every three years to follow up on this.

Are you also looking at the media?

Yes, we are looking at the media to see to what extent the media in each country are open to multilingualism. For example, on national television, are there programmes in immigrant and regional languages, or is it simply the national language? To what extent are people catered for who speak different languages? If you go to a newsstand – can you buy newspapers in immigrant or regional languages?

In films, the cinema – we are looking at whether films are usually subtitled from the original language or if they are dubbed. We think that there is a strong correlation between language achievements and exposure to films in original language. Certainly if you look at the English language – the countries where films are shown in the original version and then subtitled, we think English language learning is much better than in countries where it is dubbed.

Do you count the Internet among the media you are surveying for your project?

No, you can't really, because the Internet is not national, it is global. We thought about it but it is much more difficult to measure it. I don't think we can bring that in.

What about assessing the business world?

The business strand is all about the extent to which, in companies, language learning is encouraged. We have a questionnaire to ask company HR directors: do you encourage language learning? Are your employees rewarded for language learning? When you recruit people in your company, do you take into account the languages they can speak or not? And obviously the best companies do. 

So we want to be able to highlight and showcase the best company language policies in Europe because some companies have fantastic language policies but obviously not many people know about that.

What is a fantastic language policy for business?

A fantastic language policy for business is where languages are supported and encouraged. First of all, when you recruit, you recruit people who can speak more than one language. Secondly, in the learning and development policy employees are encouraged to go on language courses, not necessarily paid for by the company, but maybe co-funded. And then they are rewarded for that.

Also, the company thinks strategically about what languages they need for trade with companies in other countries. 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. And the whole point about learning languages is not about transactions – it is about building relationships and understanding a different culture.

I know from my experience in Russia – which is my best language – that I could have never have built relationships and trust if I didn't speak the language.      

So the businesses that will thrive in the 21st and 22nd Centuries – the businesses that will do the best – will be the ones that learn the languages of the countries that they do business with.

So coming back to your project's title 'Language Rich Europe': does the rich here mean for the economy by doing more business?

Of course, you are more likely to be successful in business, yes. Because if you speak the language of a foreign business, firstly you show that you are interested in the culture, and this builds trust. But also, if you understand their language and what they are saying to each other and on their website – then you understand their mentality. And how do you sell things to people – what's marketing about? It is about understanding how people think.

Could a member state that scores high in your study somehow leverage it to its advantage, regarding competitiveness or attracting foreign business?

It could do, but it would still have to demonstrate that it really is a language-rich society in practice. 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.

We don't want the survey to turn into a ranking, a competition. In the British Council we conduct a range of surveys and pieces of research comparing countries. Recently we did a piece of work called MIPEX on migration integration policy. MIPEX produces a ranking, which is great on one way, but the danger is that the top countries think 'we don't need to do any more work on integration', while the countries at the bottom think they are really terrible.

As far as Language Rich Europe is concerned, while some countries say there is no problem with a ranking, we are also working with other partners who don't think it is the best way to approach the issue. They prefer a softer approach where it is about self-evaluation and learning from the others. So we need to reach a compromise, because we want to create interest, not bitterness, resentment or controversy.

We have many partners from different countries on board to ensure fair play in the project – when people heard that the British Council is doing a project on multilingualism, they thought “that's very suspicious, what are they up to now?”

However, it's not that surprising really. Our values in the British Council are all about cultural and linguistic diversity. Of course we promote English and we believe that communicating in English has helped to create understanding between people of different countries.

English is a tool, but 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.

The UK probably won't be on top of the ranking in this survey, but we don't mind. One of the purposes of this research is to give a little nudge to the UK to say 'look, you're doing OK, but you are not doing quite as well as some of the other EU countries, particularly in foreign languages'.

You probably know that in the UK the language policy was changed a few years ago, so it is now no longer obligatory to learn a foreign language after the age of 14. Hopefully one of the outcomes of the project will be that this will change and many more young Brits will start learning languages again. It is my firm belief that this will boost our economy and also our understanding of other cultures.

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