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A Multilingual Britain: to ‘seal tomorrow’s business deals’

Nelson Mandela once said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’ I couldn’t agree more: learning a foreign language is a tool to understanding a county’s people and their mentality. It is the key to unlocking new cultures, markets and business partners.

My colleagues are only too aware of the time I devote to learning Mandarin, as I try not to fall too far behind my son who is taking his HSK (Chinese equivalent of IELTS) this spring. This became all the more apparent last November as I rooted around Russell Square hoping to retrieve the contents of my rucksack inadvertently stolen from the back of my car. The thief, I presume, had hoped my bag contained something instantly profitable. Although I am sure the thief would have disagreed, from my perspective, they took the most valuable and profitable possession in my car – my Mandarin course books and notes.

Breaking cross-cultural barriers is challenging and none more so than with Chinese investors. As I conversed with fellow delegates at the Chinese Overseas Investment Fair (COI Fair) at the end of last year, I realised that by speaking Mandarin it was much easier to earn the trust and interest from my Chinese counterparts. (COI Fair is an annual meeting in which Chinese investors look to invest significant amounts of money into foreign businesses around the world.)

The COI Fair coincided with David Cameron’s trade delegation to China during which, to my interest, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of increasing the study of Mandarin for the future of British business. Cameron’s visit brought to the front pages of the UK press the need for boosting Mandarin in British schools. Although the delegation built £5.6bn in tangible current deals, to sustain and develop such profitable commercial links, Cameron declared more young people in the UK need to learn mandarin to ‘seal tomorrow’s business deals’.

At present monolingualism, according to a recent survey by the British Academy, is estimated to cost the UK economy around £48bn a year. In a culture where businessmen throughout the world want a piece of China’s growth, being able to speak Mandarin will give future generations of UK businesses a competitive edge over their international competitors. Over the past few years, in response to government and media focus on China’s expanding economy and influence, British parents have already started encouraging their children to learn Mandarin. UK state and independent schools are quickly responding to this pressure. Statistics show that in 2011/2012, 36% of Independent Schools and 14% of State Schools offered Mandarin at GCSE level.

These figures are an exciting and encouraging development, especially when combined with the Government’s recent renewed emphasis on increasing the numbers learning Mandarin. The concern however is the negative implications this emphasis on Mandarin may have on the number of children now learning other world languages, and in particular Russian. Comparably, in 2011/2012, 24% of Independent Schools and only 6% of State Schools offered Russian at GSCE level, the lingua franca in a sixth of the world’s landmass. As a fervent believer in the undiscovered and overlooked opportunities in Russia, I am of course concerned by these figures. Gone are the days when Russian was learnt in the UK as a preventative measure against a Soviet threat.

Today there is a generation of business men and women in Russia, who are eager to do business with the UK, just a four hour plane ride from London. They, indeed we, are fluent in English, studied British culture at school or university and thus have a clear understanding of the present-day British mentality. By failing to encourage the value of learning Russian, the British government risks preventing the next generation of its leaders from understanding the Russian mind and soul. I question the rationale behind this when we consider that Russia is by far the fastest growing consumer market in Europe.

I was positively surprised by the number of my son’s classmates who took a foreign language at GCSE, yet I was horrified how few of them continued to study one for A level. Even today, to land a top job, everyone assumes you speak English fluently. The question, however, is how many other languages do you command? At the end of December the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) predicted the UK will overtake France as the fifth-largest economy in the world by 2018, and will overtake Germany by 2030. There are many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that will determine whether this prediction will come true, but one thing is for certain: if the UK is to compete globally, it must develop its credentials as a multilingual nation.

To achieve this I strongly believe British parents should ensure their children have mastered at least one foreign language, be it Chinese, Russian, German or Portugese, by the time they leave school. Foreign languages are crucial for Britain to ‘seal tomorrow’s business deals’.

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