A study that has been funded by the European Commission seems set to lift the lid of obscurity on the language skills debate.

The survey will look at the true economic cost of an absence of language skills in a business in today's marketplace. The study has some predecessors, which seem to show that languages are crucial to the economic prosperity of a business.

Companies both within the United Kingdom and beyond have been found to lose business and opportunities in the market through poor communication in previous studies. This research project will seek to identify the exact cost in financial terms, and could make for startling reading for many company executives.

Plans in Place?

In business, it is the company that can think and plan ahead successfully that usually steals a march on its competition. It would appear that a surprisingly high proportion of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) have failed to take into account the drag effect that poor language skills in their workforce can have on their profitability. In a shrinking world where it is not as simple as shouting things in English loudly and slowly any more, companies can lose business if they cannot communicate with partners across borders.

The study is known as the ELAN survey, with the full title of "Effects on the European Union economy of shortages of foreign language skills in Enterprise". It was first conceived and contracted by the European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture and is being led by the National Centre for Languages (CILT) in conjunction with research specialists InterAct International and support from Eurochambers.

The Mapped Path

It will study the following themes in 29 member states; the availability and use of language skills by businesses in the different member states of the European Union (EU); the evaluation of the business opportunities lost through the afore "“ mentioned shortages of foreign language skills; reaching a reasonable data "“ based estimate of the "added value" for a business with successful language skills policies (per employee); the manner in which the language skills deficit acts as a barrier to international trade.

The investigation will also attack the best means by which effective change can be achieved, discussing strategies for handling international communication. The implications of language skills shortages are expected to be shown to stifle internal EU trade, and trade beyond the European continent. The use of English and its role in relation to partner state languages within trading patterns in the EU will also be addressed. The report is due to be published by the end of 2006 and will make recommendations to the European Commission on language skills and their role in workforce development and mobility in Europe.

Extensive Study

Speaking of the Lisbon Summit and the project's course, Isabella Moore, the Director of CILT, said: "At their Lisbon Conference in 2000, all the countries of the EU declared their intention to make the European economy the most dynamic and competitive in the world. Businesses need to be able to communicate freely to maximise the benefits of the internal market. And they need language skills, and cultural understanding to give them the competitive edge in new markets."

The Principal Investigator for the project is Professor Stephen Hagen, from Warwick University. He is an international expert and commented on the importance of this research: "This is the most extensive study yet of the use of languages in trade across European business. Our remit is to investigate best practice, as well as the gaps, in language skills. The emerging picture is one of widespread variance.

"Having effective communication strategies deliver serious benefits to companies trading internationally," he continued. He then spoke of his hopes for the future through the recommendations and findings of the study: "By the end of the study we expect to have a more exact measure of the relationship between trade performance and the use of languages. This will enable us to make recommendations to the EU on how best to structure support measures to enable our businesses to be more effective communicators."

It is certainly true that language skills are crucial to the skills agenda and to the economic viability of a business in this shrinking world. However, much remains to be done if this report is to achieve not only an accurate conclusion but also recognition; and even further, actual action on the subject.

Jethro Marsh

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