The Great Wall, China

Should you know this language?

English has long been the international language of business, but how much longer can Britain ignore the fact that 60 per cent of its business is conducted with non-English speaking countries? In particular, how can it do business with China without learning Mandarin?

Few overseas markets look more promising than China, but can your company claim to have a Chinese or Asian strategy and a Chinese or Mandarin speaker?

China, as its Ambassador to the UK told a City meeting of the Worshipful Company of Marketors, now has the most open economy in the world, with foreign trade accounting for 60 per cent of total GDP. China has a huge domestic demand, a large pool of human resources, sufficient capital guaranteed by high savings rates; huge material strength, political and social stability and a favourable investment environment. In recent years, per capita living standards and quality of life of the Chinese people had soared from US$226 to more than $1,700 - up by almost 700 per cent.

"The China-UK relationship," the Ambassador pointed out, "enjoys a good momentum of development. Our bilateral trade and investment are expanding steadily, up by 20 per cent. There is great potential for boosting bilateral cooperation between the two countries since the two economies are highly complementary to each other." China had achieved an average import growth rate of over 28 per cent, reaching $660bn in 2005. In the next five years, it is expected to exceed $4tr.

But he also warned that for companies to enter China and compete in the Chinese market it is essential to understand local markets and get accustomed to local demand; it's also crucial to be familiarised with priorities of China's economic and social development in order to formulate corresponding business plans and marketing strategy; opportunity would only be achieved by those who are better prepared. Being prepared means being able to talk to your customer in their own language.

Talk the talk

UK businesses might revel in the role of English as an international language and allow themselves to feel complacent when foreign clients and associates struggle to avoid imprecise use of the language or embarrassing misinterpretation. But that's no reason to be smug when many Europeans are bilingual and the UK seems unwilling to learn Italian, Spanish, German or French. British companies take the line that it's unnecessary to speak the customer's language, especially when so many tend to speak English. Yet the UK is in the EU, trades with many parts of the world and Brits are keen travellers. As Noel Coward might have observed: "Why can't the English learn a second language?"

Demand for translation and interpreting services has led to a growing translations industry, even though there are still not enough experienced translators to fill the UK's linguistic gap. There is a shortage of professional translators, says John Wheen, managing director of 1st Transnational Translations and immediate past chairman of the Association of Translation Companies. "We are all looking for new talents, especially Chinese and Mandarin, Far East and Middle East speakers." The shortage of translators is exacerbated by the demand for interpreters for Britain's growing immigrant population. The scale and cost of this provision to local and central government has been estimated at well over the £260m spent on translation services by the private sector. Of this, two-thirds is accounted for by City banks and other financial institutions, insurance companies and professional firms. Yet many companies still take the view that it isn't really necessary to speak the customer's language. You can hire translators, but can you be sure they are conveying your message and all its nuances correctly?

In 2008, the Asian economic miracle will continue to hit the headlines. Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia have become prosperous, productive economies fast rivalling G7 countries in standards of living and sophistication. It's not only front-line sales executives who need to speak at least one or two foreign languages. If your company has spent years honing its brands and months refining its sales literature, the last thing you need is to ruin the effect on overseas customers and prospects by sending them poorly translated promotional material, documents and correspondence. If you phone an overseas customer, the switch board operator invariably speaks two or three languages. How many UK companies can greet foreign customers in their own language?

The shortage of translators, together with the government's policy of outsourcing, appears to have led to a large part of official translating work being handled by two private agencies, as a number of angry translators recently pointed out in a letter in the Times. This means that "thousands of confidential documents are now being handled by unspecified sub-contractors, many of whom are likely to be based outside the UK, possibly beyond the reach of our security services. Previously, such work was performed by named individuals with many years experience in this field, each of whom had to sign the Official Secrets Act; most were also qualified members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and/or the Chartered Institute of Linguists and governed by their respective codes of conduct".

There isn't only a shortage of translators but also a shortage of language teachers at a time when there is a fast-growing demand, especially for Chinese and Mandarin. Both professional institutes show a minimal annual increase in membership. Less than 1 per cent of schools in the UK teach either Chinese or Mandarin or both. The solution, says Alan Wheatley of the ITI is to encourage youngsters from age six onwards to learn languages. Foreign language schools seem to be mainly attended by foreign students. The government's own foreign language training centre in Whitehall for diplomats, civil servants and MPs is threatened with closure on the grounds of cost. Industry is to blame for some of the UK's linguistic shortcomings. There is no career structure for translators and a surprisingly low demand. How often do you see a management recruitment advertisement specifying that language skills are required, and merit higher salary or status? The exceptions are large accountancy and legal practices, IT consultants and companies trading globally where a qualification and language degree are in demand and earn higher salaries. Some offer language training. Should the UK be flattered that language training schools are full of foreign students who want to learn English, and many British universities and business schools attract overseas students because of the language as much as the subject - whether it's management or finance?

At London Business School students come from nearly 100 different countries. "Delivering courses in English offers that vital extra ingredient," says professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University's School of Management.

Time for the UK to embrace foreign languages as keenly as these foreign students.

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