Luigi Koechlin: Bad language is better than no language
ON ANY given day in my Stirling headquarters I tune in to seven or eight different languages as my staff speak to clients around the world. Admittedly we are a translations company, but it is still a rich mixture and we are a platform for promoting Scotland across the international business community.
However, step outside the office – and by that I mean anywhere in Scotland – and you are faced with a stark contrast. As someone born and brought up in Peru, schooled in Switzerland after moving to Europe and finishing off my education in Scotland, I feel well placed to comment on the language skills, or, more accurately, the lack of them, across the UK business community. I work in the shadow of the Wallace Monument and that great historical figure would no doubt be appalled at modern Scotland’s inability to communicate in anything other than English.
I appreciate the arguments that English is the international language of business, but the old economic order has already shifted east. Even if English does retain its pre-eminence in the business community there is the question of relationship building with international contacts, which can be much more powerful when you do so in their own tongue. If nothing else it is a courtesy to try.
In 2008 the Scottish Government announced how it planned to increase engagement with China. There were seven laudable objectives, the first one of which was to increase Chinese language learning in Scottish schools.
According to a University of Strathclyde study I stumbled across recently, 26 pupils sat the Higher exam in Simplified Mandarin and only six in Traditional Mandarin in 2011.
The report card so far should read: “Could do better.” I do not intend to be overly critical of the Scottish education system, because it is simply a product of the culture within which it exists.
And change can be troublesome. Mark Twain once said: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Touché.
• Luigi Koechlin is director of Global Voices.
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