Why English Alone Is Not Enough for Scots

Marlyn Glen

30 May 2012

According to an old  saying :

 “A person who speaks two languages is called bilingual.

“A person who speaks just one language is called British” 

At the time of its conception, the saying may have been just a wry reflection on a perceived indifference towards the languages and culture of mainland Europe.

Today there’s a more recent saying, 

“You can buy in your own language, but you must sell in the language of your customer.”

Today we can see a time approaching when  English is no longer the dominant language of business in the global economy.

As former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, put it :  

“Complex international, economic, technological and cultural changes are resulting in a gradual erosion of the place of English as the language of the worldmarket…..monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage”

This example from the Scottish Government’s Languages Working Group points out the serious economic consequences of the shortcomings of a tradition of single language insularity.

 “The cost to Scotland of the lack of language skills was brought into stark relief by a major petrochemical company, which cited the inability to recruit language speakers as the reason that their Scottish headquarters was unable to bid for (let alone win) the European sales office of the newly amalgamated company, resulting in a loss of jobs worth £4million a year to Scotland.”

The employers’ organisation , CBI Scotland , quotes research that the lack of foreign language skills in Scotland is a barrier to foreign trade – a “ language tax” - which is hurting the Scottish economy to the tune of £500 million a year in lost orders and business.

The reliance on the belief that there was no need to learn a foreign language because English was already spoken by many people abroad finds no comfort in figures  from CILT, the National Centre for Languages - 75% of the world’s population speak no English and just  6% are fluent in English.

Once thought of as an asset in commerce, foreign language skills are nowadays essential.

This is because learning another country’s language brings with it an understanding of that country’s culture that is vital in selling our goods and services abroad.

As a  recent REGUS survey of  small and medium enterprises in the UK  found , there are “too few who are exporting and too few are multilingual….despite evidence that firms of all sizes operating overseas are weathering the economic crisis better than those solely focused on the home market”.

The Scottish Languages Working Group have brought forward proposals, the centrepiece of a recent Holyrood debate, on a “ 1 +2” suggestion whereby a pupil learns another language besides English as from Primary 1, and another by Primary 5, as practised in continental Europe.

The proposals require proper funding and resources for such a radical approach, particularly in the form of foreign language assistants in schools.

Their numbers have fallen across sharply Scotland from 300 to 59 in the past 6 years.

“1+2” offers the prospect of success in the long-term .

Speaking another language is not just about selling our products

It’s about selling our politics as well.

We regularly watch European politicians who appear on major TV political programmes such as “Newsnight” to answer questions in English explaining to a British audience the issues of the day  in France, Germany, Spain and much further afield.

Who are their British equivalents who appear on European TV channels to explain to European audiences in their own languages contemporary British political events ?

The same applies to celebrating our sporting success.

Which successful British sportsman or sportswoman, fluent in a second language, will be interviewed at the Olympics by a foreign TV channel ?

There’s already one outstanding example  to follow here - Roy Hodgson, the multi-lingual manager of the England international football team.

According to his Wiki entry, this much-travelled manager speaks several languages besides English - Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian with some Danish, French and Finnish

And ultimately it’s selling about ourselves , and our respect for and curiosity in other people’s way of living.

 “Vive la difference!” between cultures is enhanced when people say “Au revoir l'indifférence! ” to the language of others.


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