You’ve got to Speak the Language

need to begin with an apology – either to the Times or the Guardian. I read a story in one of them which was alarming, depressing and has implications for all our businesses. Unfortunately I can’t remember which paper it was, so I can’t attribute the quotation: but here it is anyway.


A small British company negotiated a deal with a small French buyer. With some help, they got by in English, enough to draw up a contract. They shipped the goods. But then, disaster. The French company failed to pay. Someone in the British company called to find out what the problem was. But nobody in the French operation spoke English. The accounts department panicked — nobody there spoke French. Nobody in the whole company spoke French. They couldn’t chase the money.


‘Their own fault’ you might think. Or possibly, ‘That’s unlucky. Fancy finding the only French company where no-one speaks English.’


That’s the problem. There’s a widespread belief that the whole world speaks English as a second language. That the World Wide Web is in world wide English.


They don’t. It’s not.


According to the British Academy, 75 per cent of the world does not speak English, and the web shows a receding dominance. In 2000, 51 per cent of the internet was in English. In less than ten years this had dropped to 29 per cent.


This isn’t the place to go into the rights and wrongs of various Governments’ various education policies. But the lack of language teaching is starting to impact adversely on the UK’s trade. One estimate puts the trade lost through our poor command of languages at £17bn a year: one company in nine currently reports losing a contract because of poor language skills. Or to put it another way – there’s an even chance that someone round an Alternative Board table has lost business because of an inability to speak a foreign language.


So am I suggesting that everyone rushes out and starts learning a foreign language? No, I’m not, because for the vast majority of people it’s impractical: they simply don’t have the time. What I am suggesting is that UK plc (and our North Yorkshire division of it) could make more of an effort with foreign languages. It doesn’t take much to learn the basics – perhaps, ‘does anyone in your company speak English’ would be a good starting point!


Now let’s bring the language debate closer to home – specifically to Leeds and rural North Yorkshire. Someone said to me last week that they were like the UK and America – separated by a common language. He was suggesting there was a distinct difference between business people in the two areas in terms of attitude and speed of decision making.


I’m not sure that I agree – there are some remarkably able people in North Yorkshire who’ve made a conscious lifestyle choice – but there’s no doubt that I approach an appointment in LS1 in a different way to one where there are cows grazing outside the office window. Hopefully, in both cases, I’m ready to ‘speak the right language.’


And that’s the key point, drummed into you at the first sales and marketing presentation you ever went to – you need to speak (literally and figuratively) in a language your customers understand, be it French, Spanish or simply a different attitude.


Over the coming years I’m absolutely convinced that many more of us will be dealing with clients and customers who don’t have English as a first language (or don’t have English at all) so some basic understanding of foreign languages is going to become ever more important. Whether your customers are in Luxembourg or Leeds, Cherbourg or Sheriff Hutton, you’ll need to speak their language.



  1. Andy Gambles (@andygambles) · March 30, 2012


    It is probably different for large organisations. I deal with this simply. All our communication is done via email. The email has a translation plugin that translates in to english or whatever language the recipient requires. It contains the caveat that this has been done via an automated translation so may not be completely grammatically correct.

    This does us well. I think because we are an internet company our foreign customers are well used to working this way.

    However when something is very important I call on a professional translator. There are services ou there that will translate an email for a small fixed fee. Well worth paying for to avoid language barrier complications (I have many funny stories about misunderstandings!)

  2. hilarychapman · March 30, 2012

    Which language(s) should we be learning for business purposes? Learn Spanish and you’re at a loss In Germany, learn French and you’re illiterate in Russia, learn Chinese and you can’t ask for an ice cream in Portugal. So which language should we be learning? I would respectfully suggest that we take another look at Esperanto, a relatively new language which is easy to learn and use.

    Of course, not everyone speaks Esperanto at the moment, but we have to start somewhere.

  3. simon tomlin · April 5, 2012

    I completely agree with you Ed, but there’s another aspect which is also crucial.

    Companies that have international branches or subsidiaries must also consider the question of language and communication internally.

    As someone who coaches/trains many French/German/Spanish managers in English and communication skills, I am frequently shocked by the unthinking way in which their British counterparts communicate.

    Remember that your European colleague may be doing a similar, very demanding job to yours, but much of it in their second language. They are, if you like, the Ginger Rogers to your Fred Astaire.

    If you do not recognise the extra effort made by your foreign colleague, and in your turn make some effort to be clearer in your own speech/writing as well as trying to learn at least a bit of their language you risk:
    a) ineffective communication in emails/at meetings etc which can result in wasted time/resources
    b) demotivating excellent staff/managers who feel you don’t respect them or their views
    c) complete alienation of staff

    I have seen at first hand numerous examples of this in some very large companies.

    Of course, you don’t need to be fluent in French, German or whatever, but showing some courtesy and respect for the other cultures will pay dividends both in terms of improved working relationships and productivity.

    • edreidyork · April 5, 2012

      Hi Simon – thanks very much for your comments. I agree completely that both parties must make an effort to ensure a proper DIAlogue occurs.

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