By Dick Philbrick, formely Managing Director, Clansman Dynamics

This opinion piece concerns the importance of language skills, particularly in companies that design and manufacture a product. Such a company would need engineers to design it, manufacture the parts, assemble, test, sell and service; and export it.

Companies all face some kind of competition and in my experience if your competitors are able to sell in a country where you don’t, then they will sell at a high price there and discount heavily in a country where you do. Exporting provides an increased turnover which permits an easier recovery of overheads. If you can manage to export to all five continents then you have more chance of reducing the problem of a feast of orders suddenly becoming a famine as economies in a few countries collapse. If you manufacture something then you must export it to survive, as the Germans do so well.

I have been involved in various government and Quango initiatives to try to find ways of helping companies export and the results have not been noticeably successful. I have also talked to school groups of S3 pupils who are trying to decide what subjects to take for National 1-5 exams, in an initiative organised by SCILT ( Scotland’s National Centre for Languages ) in Glasgow. The enthusiasm and energy of the language teachers I have met has been overwhelming. We all know that apart from Spanish the numbers of pupils taking languages has declined.

A German company would send a salesman to sell and service engineer to install a laser in Scotland and their engineers would speak English. ‘Internationalising’ Scottish business, increasing exports will not happen unless we equip our engineers with language skills. It is often said the world speaks English; actually we think about 1.2 billion of the 7 billion on our planet speak English. More importantly as Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘ you win hearts and minds if you speak in their language.’ My company advertised many times for engineers and always indicated that language skills were desirable. The result was always plenty of engineers and quite a lot of linguists, but never the combination.

Some say that in the past we managed to sell our ships and locomotives, sewing machines and motorbikes around the world without language skills. We did, but in those days our colonies provided captive markets. The Monty Finniston report into engineering, published in 1980,declared that UK manufacturing had been in decline for the previous 150 years. That was a horrifying statement and there are many reasons for that decline, but among them, based on my experience, must be language skills.

We had to learn French at school and when it came to deciding 50 years ago what subjects to choose other subjects for O’levels, there was not the plethora of soft subjects to chose from. So I opted to do a year of German and that has stood me in very good stead. I would venture so far as to say that the small company that three engineers started in 1994 would never have made it without language skills. We could manage to communicate with just enough proficiency in German, French and Italian, partly thanks to the Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise in Glasgow.

People imagine language skills are important for sales people. They are and do allow for all, even non-english speakers, around the table to participate. Language skills allow a speaking slot at a seminar or institution meeting and in my experience the correctness of the language spoken is not too important. But they are important for non-sales reasons too.

We had a technical problem with some bit of mechanics on a machine in Leipzig, that four attempts had failed to fix. I picked up something that a fitter, who seemed to be being ignored, as we stood around the machine, said which I half understood. He explained and drew a sketch on a literal fag packet. He had obviously thought about it very carefully and his solution worked. He became an important contact.

More seriously we were accused of supplying an unsafe machine to a company that had best remain nameless. We were summoned to a meeting with the company’s engineers and their equivalent of our HSE. Only when I hung back after the gathering around the machine to talk to an operator did I get the truth from the Algerian guy who spoke no English. Safety limits had been removed so two maintenance engineers who were ‘horsing around’ could see how fast they could get the machine to go. Accusation withdrawn.

I remember well the desperate phone call from one of our electricians on a Saturday afternoon with his return flight looming for me to explain to the Frenchman that he wanted a flow meter and not a pressure meter – Google translate did not work in that remote area.

What can be done? Government agencies suggest travelling with a linguist which is too expensive; or employing a linguist, but what can they do when there is none of their particular language to translate – also unaffordable. The need is for foreign language speaking engineers. The company can pay for a teacher to come and give lessons. That worked well, and surprising numbers signed up for it. If you have the discipline to persevere then learning on line appears to be a powerful way of learning a language. The Goethe and others offer excellent courses. The government in Scotland is pursuing the 1 + 2 scheme ( called the Barcelona Agreement – 2012 ) in primary schools, whereby pupils in P2 get lessons in foreign language 1 and in P5 in a second language; professional foreign language teachers seem to deride the scheme because the teachers involved have normally only received minimal training – but surely we have to start somewhere? And we can all explain to our children and grandchildren that language skills are important and might help them to get a job.

Finally speaking a foreign language can be fun and is said to help ward off the dreaded dementia – we’ll see!


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IES.

March 2021

Posted in News & Opinions

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