Is There a Language Barrier to International Expansion?

The UK stands out among its European counterparts for many reasons, but one of them is its relative lack of language skills, which often puts the country at a disadvantage in a multilingual marketplace. When expanding your business abroad, being culturally sensitive is one of the most important factors to consider and plan for, but for UK companies going international, language often isn’t high up on the agenda.

The Importance of Language

Unfortunately, not being able to speak a second language can be a hinderance when it comes to expanding into international markets, even if you share your native language with the global language of business.

Employers in the UK have long expressed their concerns that the UK workforce lacks language skills, and there are wider concerns that fewer young people are choosing to learn a second language in school.

A survey of 8,000 businesses published by the British Chamber of Commerce in 2012, for example, found that the UK’s lack of language skills was seriously affecting its abilities to export. Almost two thirds (61%) of business that don’t export internationally, but were likely to consider trading internationally, thought a lack of language skills was a barrier to expanding business overseas.

And even among business owners who said they had some level of skills when it came to speaking a second language, very few said they knew enough to get them through negotiating a business deal in whichever second language they knew. While 73% said they knew some French, only four percent felt able to speak it to a level at which they could confidently talk business and make negotiations.

These findings led the British Chambers of Commerce to call for a reintroduction of compulsory language learning for those 17 years old and younger, to prepare them for a future in an ever-globalised economy. Knowing a second language beyond just small talk allows a business to connect with international markets on a much deeper level than if they just rely on English.

One problem facing UK employers is that there are around 1,200 languages spoken worldwide, and more than 200 languages with over three million speakers. Therefore, it’s impossible to have a workforce fluent in every language. In Russia alone there are 27 languages that are co-official with Russian.

Fortunately, there is advice available on which languages are the most beneficial for a business to ensure they have an awareness of. According to the British Council, the most important languages for the UK’s future economy are Spanish, followed by Mandarin, French, Arabic and German.

Being able to fluently speak just one other language can go a long way in business, and can help employees establish and build good relationships in new countries. Even if a second language isn’t used all the time, the act of making the effort to learn can be a clear sign of a company’s commitment to immersing itself in a new culture and country.

If you’re expanding abroad and are looking for expert advice, such as how to best prepare for cultural differences in your new market, get in touch to learn how Galvin International can help you achieve your goals.

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