Posted on Wednesday 26 September 2012 by Ulster Business

Language

Senior Chinese politician Madam Liu Yandong visited Northern Ireland earlier this year. But will Chinese businesses want to invest here?

With Northern Ireland selling itself on the back of its strong skills base, is enough importance being placed on equipping our workforce with the right language skills? Stephen McVey reports.

English has traditionally been given the title of 'the language of business'.

But the combination of an increasingly global economy and heightened cultural sensitivities has intensified concerns around Northern Ireland's low standing in language skills.

As we surge forward in the race to win Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), there is a risk that a linguistic limp will result in local business losing out.

The Northern Ireland Executive sees growth in exports as being crucial to the focus on transforming Northern Ireland into a vibrant, private sector-led economy. The Programme for Government has set the challenging target of increasing manufacturing exports by 20% by 2015 to £6.59bn. In addition to this, a 60% increase has been set for emerging markets, which include India and China.

Minister for the Department of Education and Learning (DEL), Stephen Farry, suggests that language skills will have a role to play in reaching these figures, albeit a supporting role.

"The EU and North America represent large markets to develop export sales further, but the Economic strategy for Northern Ireland highlights that much greater trade alliances should be developed with the fast growing emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China," he said.

"In this context, language skills are likely to play a fundamental role in assisting our local businesses to promote their products and develop trade in foreign markets. However, it is likely that language skills will be required in addition to specific professional skills such as marketing, sales and engineering."

However, Pól Ó Dochartaigh, Dean of the Confucius Institute for Northern Ireland at the University of Ulster, believes a focus on American investment has left us unprepared for what the rest of the world has to offer.

"The UK has the lowest level of bilingual speakers in Europe and when more people in the world are bilingual than not, we are at an instant disadvantage. When we were dependent on the US, we did not look at where the other investment would come from because it was only a small part of the pie. Well, it is getting bigger and bigger all the time and employers are going to analyse what other languages young people can bring to the table," he said.

The Confucius Institute provides the University of Ulster with a link up with a university in China called the Zhejiang University of Media and Communications. The Northern Ireland Institute is hoping to enable businesses to develop an understanding of Chinese business practices and culture through a series of tailor-made courses for their firms. The University of Ulster is also adding Chinese to the list of degree levels from 2013.

Northern Ireland exports to India and China (excluding Hong Kong) in 2011/12 were £27.19m and £67.5m respectively. Pól Ó Dochartaigh believes there is an opportunity to improve upon this success.

"The 21st century is going to be China's century; there is no doubt about that. The 20th century was America's; the 19th century was Britain's. Now it's China's time and we have got to be prepared," he said.

"With 370 Confucius institutes set up around the world, many countries have got youngsters coming up learning Mandarin and if they produce people with essential skills to prepare for Chinese investment in those countries, they are going to go there instead of coming here. So we have got to try and catch up and develop those skills."

Recent studies have shown that local businesses are crying out for an improvement in language skills. CBI, the business lobbying organisation, has carried out a UK- wide education and skills survey.

The key points of the survey reveal:

• Nearly three quarters (72%) of businesses say they value foreign language skills among their employees, particularly in helping build relations with clients, customers and suppliers (39%).

• One in five firms (21%) is concerned that weaknesses in foreign language proficiency are losing them business.

• Among firms concerned about shortfalls in language proficiency, half (52%) are looking to recruit staff with appropriate skills.

Kirsty McManus, the Assistant Regional Director of CBI Northern Ireland believes the survey gives an accurate assessment of the situation in Northern Ireland.

"CBI believes that strong export performance will be crucial in driving economic recovery and companies will need many more people with strong language skills to help them enter new markets in the future," she said.

The survey found that the Chinese spoken language, Mandarin, rose to fourth on the list of languages that businesses feel is desirable in their employees.

In recent years, Northern Ireland has celebrated numerous success stories in attracting FDI. But, as language skills continue to play second fiddle to science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM subjects), is there a risk of losing out on multinationals setting up on our shores?

Kirsty Dillon is Regional manager Northern Ireland for Blueprint Appointments, a specialist division of Grafton Recruitment, which provides services for careers relating to STEM.

"What we are noticing is the rising demand for additional languages. More and more we are seeing clients coming with queries about people with language skills they can take into the STEM areas of employment," she said.

"There has been a massive influx of provisional requests from global companies who are thinking about setting up locally. German, Russian and Mandarin are the up and coming languages. They are in demand but we would call them Tier 2 languages because it is extremely hard to find fluent speakers of these languages in Northern Ireland."

The European Survey on Language Competences revealed that only 39% of people in the UK could have a conversation in a foreign language, according to those polled. This compares to an EU average of 54%.

Invest NI insists it will work with DEL and educational institutions to address this languid stance on language skills.

Bill Montgomery, Director of International Investment, said: "Should a potential investor require multilingual skills, Invest NI will work with the investor to help establish the relevant skills availability in the region. Where a skills shortage is identified (either multilingual or other), Invest NI will work with the Department for Employment and Learning, local universities and Further Education colleges to address this gap and assure a sustainable skills pipeline."

But Frank Cassidy, Regional officer for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Northern Ireland, believes there needs to be a review of how languages are perceived as a contributor to business growth.

"Languages are getting squeezed out to comply with government requirements. There has been a push to promote STEM subjects but people are now beginning to realise that languages have an important role to play to deliver our products to foreign investors," he said.

"We need to begin a conversation about changing the specifications for 'A' level languages, to make them more market-place orientated. Then they will be able to sit more comfortably in the range of academic and vocational subjects."

Invest NI have acknowledged the growing importance of establishing a Far East Fraternity. In November, the First, deputy First Minister and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment will lead an Invest NI trade delegation to Beijing and Shanghai, China.

The same amount of effort will be needed to improve local language and communication skills in preparation for the arrival of one of the most important emerging markets in the business world today.

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