Speaking in Tonguesby Helena Deane on 10/05/11
English is one of the main business languages so why would you need to bother knowing any other language when trading in export markets?
According to the ELAN study focusing on use of languages within Europe, there is clearly either an issue of complacency based on the lack of implementation of language strategies in Anglophone countries (UK and Ireland), or simply a belief amongst companies in these countries that English is adequate for all trading purposes, which diminishes the recognition of languages as a means to increase trade worldwide.
Language and communication strategy
It has been demonstrated that the most effective performers amongst export SMEs tend to have a language, or communication, strategy. In the aggregated and total European samples, 48% of the firms acknowledge having a formal communication (or language) strategy. The UK with 3% and Ireland with 1%, deviate substantially from the norm.
One of the most self-evident steps for an international trader is to develop a website in another language to enter a new market. This is the most common tactic used amongst SMEs in relation to international communication. On average, 62% of the firms in the European sample have produced websites in other languages for the purpose of export, in Ireland this figure is a mere 5%.
The above statistics are perhaps far less surprising considering the modest levels of SMEs that do presently export, but one could argue that not overcoming the language and communication barrier to trade internationally is precisely one of the causes that more firms are not exporting.
All of the above strongly indicates that there is an acute need for Irish SMEs to adopt a language and communication strategy in order to compete more effectively in the export markets. There are several ways in which a company may adopt a foreign language strategy:
- Employing people with relevant language skills is one of the most straightforward ways in accessing a foreign language skill directly, and would make sense for a company that will have to use the prospective language over a longer period of time and if the intention is to build long-term relationships with countries in which such languages are used. The downside is that a firm cannot hire an expert in each language of each export market one would hope to trade with and the cost to benefit ratio may be very low in the early stages of exporting.
- Choosing and using local agents in foreign markets who can speak your own language can be the first step in opening up a new, or sometimes unknown, market. The downside to this is being able to control the pace and scope of activities in the foreign country less effectively and not having a direct presence.
- Use of translators and interpreters – this option is used very little at the moment - only 4% of Irish businesses engage translators or interpreters. However, it can be a very flexible option as it offers the benefit of being able to trade directly with the chosen export country without loosing direct management control, and can also offer higher cost to benefit ratio than employing people with relevant language skills, especially seeing that this method offers easy access to a great variety of languages instantaneously.