15 February 2018

In-Demand Languages for UK Businesses


The modern business environment is ever-changing, and it can feel overwhelming trying to find that competitive edge that sets you apart from your peers. In order to find your business’s niche in the market, you may need to take a long hard look at the skills you have in-house (and where any current gaps are) to fulfil your business’s promise.

The clever folks at CBI/Pearson know how important it is to look ahead, so they surveyed a wide range of UK businesses to help establish their real crunch points regarding future business prospects. The survey unearthed a number of concerns about the skills gap in the UK employment market, with nearly two-thirds of businesses seeing this gap as a threat to future UK competitiveness. Uncertainty around Brexit almost certainly adds to this climate of concern.

Among the many skills in demand, language skills were highly regarded by UK employers. However, language proficiency is not a particular strength of the UK employment market, with only 34% of businesses currently satisfied with the foreign language skills of school and college leavers. Which begs the question: which global languages are on the radar for UK businesses?

European languages are in demand!

In last week’s blog, we took an initial look at the survey’s key language findings, which showed that French (51%) and German (47%) were regarded as the two most important foreign languages for UK businesses. The level of interest in both languages has remained steady for UK business leaders over recent years: France and Germany are key markets for UK export; French is a popular language that is second only to English for language learners, and it is widely spoken across the world (plus, France is one of the UK’s nearest neighbours); and Germany is a major centre for global trade.

Indeed, the returns on learning German could significantly exceed the investment required: learning German and being able to effectively trade with this global giant could be the point of difference that enables your business to grow within a changing Europe.

You may, of course, be wondering where Spanish fits in. If so, you will be pleased to know that it sits just behind German on the list of in-demand languages, at 45%. This is a leap from only 30% in 2016 (though it placed a little higher in 2015, at 36%). Like French, Spanish is a language with global reach, and it opens your business to other parts of the world – particularly countries in Central and South America.

Spanish is now a serious contender to rival French and German as priority European languages. As a result, it becomes clear that European languages are dominant in the minds of UK firms looking for overseas opportunities, as these three languages take the gold, silver and bronze spots on their hitlist.

Priorities in Asia: China and Japan

Mandarin’s importance to UK businesses has leapt from 27% in 2015 to 36% in 2017, while another popular Chinese dialect, Cantonese, dropped from 20% to 13% in the same timeframe. Mandarin may be the smartest choice for language learners as it is the basis of the official language of China – it is also the most widely spoken (and understood) language across China. The survey results suggest that, overall, businesses continue to see access to China as important to the UK’s prospects.

The survey identified only one other strong performer in Asia: Japanese. This continues to track steadily at 14%.

Arabic: Accessing the MENA region

Interest in Arabic remained balanced at 20% during the 2015 and 2016 surveys, but there was a significant jump to 26% in 2017, suggesting that the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region may be a key market for many businesses going forward. However, in the same way that the MENA region consists of several very different countries with their own unique cultures, it is also a region of many languages (though Arabic is certainly dominant). To do business successfully in the MENA region, you will need to research the language and the culture carefully.

Honourable mentions: Other European languages

French, German and Spanish (as well as proficient English!) may be the primary languages on the minds of UK employers, but several other European languages rated favourably in last year’s survey. Polish, for example, was valued by a respectable 23% of the survey – in fact, Polish is the second most spoken language in the UK according to the latest UK census, so it may also be valuable for UK-based operations as well.

Dutch was also relatively popular at 15%, and Portuguese appears further down the list at 12%. Like French and Spanish, Portuguese (and, to a lesser extent, Dutch) are spoken in other countries – and continents – across the world.

Looking ahead: Identifying your language-related skills gaps

Smart HR managers know that investing in their people can yield fantastic results. The CBI/Pearson survey also identified the importance of training, with well over half of employees receiving training in the surveyed organisations. However, your training budget is precious, and how you spend it may make all the difference to your future business prospects.

If you see business growth opportunities overseas (whether a short hop across the channel or away to more distant lands), it may help to consider whether your team has the language skills it needs to guarantee effective results.

Ask yourself:

  1. What language skills does our team have?
  2. What language skills does our team need?
  3. How can we fill this language skills gap?

If you identify a gap in your organisation’s language skills requirements, there is no need to panic: this may actually present your business with an opportunity (rather than threaten your prospects). Understanding your training needs allows you to develop tailormade training programmes that complement your business’s strategy. It also means that you can hire the best business talent regardless of the strength of their language skills.

By anticipating the direction of your business strategy and how this may affect your language requirements, you can make language learning a part of your training strategy from day one – which may also serve to attract potential business stars to your company!

Your organisation may experience significant benefits from introducing language learning as part of its training plan, and investing in languages such as French, German and Spanish – or even business English – may hold the key to your future growth. Talk to Simon & Simon today to find out more about our language learning courses in Central London and beyond.

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