Notes from Ireland: Compulsory Languages could be a Business Plus

The UK isn’t always very good at fostering a sense of international community among its population. The consultancy firm Timetric notes that Brits aren’t particularly well-travelled, falling outside the top ten of the most restless wanderers, while the UK’s lack of language skills has become a bit of a trademark – even a meme – around the world.

Ironically, Britain’s monolingualism comes at a time when language learning is at its most accessible. Learning German, for instance, is possible through online tutor services like Preply, though its beginners’ guide to the language notes that German is among the hardest languages to learn of all its European cousins. As German comes from the same branch as English, another tough language, it’s perhaps no surprise.

A recent BBC article notes that the UK’s language skills are, sadly, getting worse. Back in 2014, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, and the UK were among the most monolingual countries in Europe – and the situation hasn’t improved. In fact, in Ireland, languages are in “critical decline”, with uptake down 40% in 15 years. Worse, a third of schools in the country no longer offer languages as an option.

Capitalist and Globalised

While it all sounds a bit bleak for languages, these things have a way of spurring people into action. A fair amount of good could still come out of the UK’s monolingualism. However, the solution isn’t a delicate one. Teachers are now recommending that the UK government makes language learning compulsory for young people.

The benefits for business are obvious but the incentives for learning a language other than English aren’t yet present. Harvard Business Review claimed that English became the dominant business language way back in 2012, with 1.75bn people on earth able to speak it at a “useful level”. The question that needs to be asked is whether the latter situation is related to the decline in the UK’s language uptake.

Fortunately, the answer is probably ‘no’. The chances of the world adopting English as the lingua franca for all day-to-day needs are close to zero, so it’s much more useful to view the use of languages in business as separate from ordinary communication. The fact that English has united companies around the world is an obvious net good for all things capitalist and globalised.

Common Tongue

There’s still a problem, though. Businesses still desperately crave foreign languages for more localised interactions. In the US, for example, it’s difficult to conduct business in the far south without a working knowledge of Spanish. The Hispanic population living in the United States could reach 100m by 2020, according to the US Census Bureau, which will create a more bilingual nation.

Of course, Mandarin Chinese is growing in importance, too. Around a billion people currently speak the language, making it the most common tongue in the world. As far as business is concerned, Mandarin is in an odd position compared to English, simply due to its extreme difficulty to learn. While that may prevent the uptake of Chinese worldwide, interactions with China can only grow over time.

Overall, compulsory languages may sound extreme but the benefits for business could be great.