Go multilingual or lose out, commissioner tells EU businesses

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Presenting the results of a 2006 foreign-language skills study on 23 February 2007, Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban urged EU companies to invest in language skills to dramatically improve their business opportunities.

The findings suggest 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, according to the Commission.

Recent research shows that companies that enhance their language skills can exploit better the business opportunities in the EU’s internal market, which, with nearly half a billion people, is the world’s largest.

While the report confirms the importance of English as the world’s business language, other languages are used extensively as intermediary languages. In particular, the analysis reveals that there is a need for a range of other languages if business relationships are to be built successfully. Those cited as being the most important include the main European languages, such as German, French and Spanish, but increasingly also other world languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban said: "Far from being an unwelcome cost to doing business, investing in language skills can dramatically improve a company's business opportunities. I plan to place multilingualism at the heart of the Lisbon Strategy for more growth and jobs."

Orban acknowledged that English plays a predominant role worldwide, but that he wanted to promote more linguistic diversity within the EU.

"We want to be open not only to official languages of the Union, but also to others like regional languages, languages of minorities, immigrants' languages and third countries' languages," he added. 

Theijs van Welij, president of students' association AEGEE-Europe, one of the EU's largest interdisciplinary student groups involving some 15,000 students, cited recent findings showing that many young people have improved their language skills during non-formal learning activities. He said "that the multicultural experience has a big impact on the participants of the 'Summer Universities'", a two-week AEGEE-Europe event bringing together between 25-50 students from all over Europe. 

"Young people from more than 20 different nationalities travel across Europe to participate together in multicultural programmes, language courses, thematic workshops and other activities that are organised in about 100 cities," van Welij said.

 

According to the study Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise published on Friday by the UK National Centre for Languages, thousands of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts as a result of their lack of language skills.

In presenting the findings, Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban, whose post was created in January when his country Romania joined the EU, said that he intended "to set all the [23] official languages spoken in the European Union on an equal footing". He added that he would also push the 27-nation bloc to promote the use of subtitles rather than dubbing of television programs or films, as a way to promote multilingualism.

Orban further noted that, according to the survey, around 11% of respondents had lost a contract as a result of lack of language skills, and that the average loss per business over a three-year period was more than €325,000.

The research is the first effort at EU level to estimate the costs to businesses incurred by a lack of 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 portfolio of multilingualism was created in the Commission to accommodate the accession of Bulgaria and Romania on 1 January 2007. Multilingualism, together with consumer protection, enabled each member state to have one commissioner.

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