Britain: Muffled by monolingualism?

Britain’s authority as a force in international business risks being blighted by narrow-mindedness and linguistic ignorance.

This week, the BBC reported at a YouGov poll found that only twenty-five per cent of UK residents claim that they can hold a conversation in any of the top ten languages listed by the British Council, and more than half of upper-secondary school students don’t study a foreign language.

While this hasn’t dampened the UK’s appeal for direct investment from abroad, I struggle to see how outward investment will prosper as strongly if future generations can’t read off a Spanish restaurant menu.

Naysayers will rubbish such claims, citing that English is the world’s most widely spoken language and the lingua franca in global politics and international business.

Such rhetoric fails to see the bigger picture: British monoglots are no longer among the privileged few blessed with speaking the world’s most useful language. The Economist predicts that by 2050, half of the world’s population will be more or less proficient in English. The language risks becoming a mundane commodity, a convenient communication tool much like the telephone.

UK plc’s future success hinges on how we create closer ties to our European neighbours and trading partners in the Far East and South America.

British organisations that realise this have succeeded profoundly. Online retailer ASOS saw a 73 per cent surge in international sales after its multilingual website went live earlier this year. Similarly, Debenhams’s German website launch 18 months ago has helped see online sales double from last year.

These brands did more than simply translate their websites; they showed their customers empathy and respect by communicating to them in their own language.

UK businesses should take heed, and embrace foreign languages and cultures, instead of speaking very slowly and loudly to get a point across in English. Then we can proudly say that Great Britain is truly open for business.