S & B: Ms Cunningham, each year, thousands of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts as a result of their lack of language skills and intercultural competence. How can companies take a more strategic approach to multilingual communication?
Kristina Cunningham: The first step is awareness: awareness and knowledge about the fact that languages mean a lot more than just basic communication. In competition, the successful bidder will speak the language of his customer and understand the cultural context in which the customer makes his choices. The second step is to assess in-house language resources and decide if they match the needs of the company. If the linguistic skills that have been considered necessary to carry out the company's business plans for the near future are insufficient, strategic decisions have to be taken about remedies: recruitment, training, outsourcing or other methods.
S & B: What is an effective language strategy for SMEs?
Kristina Cunningham: The European Commission recently carried out a mapping with the help of Professor Stephen Hagen, a well known lecturer and researcher in the field of successful business communication for international trade. Professor Hagen and his research team identified a number of high-performing SMEs, which all had in common that they had effective language strategies and that they had improved their turnover by at least 25% by applying successful language techniques. These included a blend of different measures, such as recruiting native speakers, investing in a well structured multilingual and culturally adapted website, working with local agents, organising targeted language training, implementing language technologies and much more.
S & B: How does the EC promote and support languages in business?
Kristina Cunningham: We try to raise awareness within the business sector about the importance of language skills for successful international trade. We have recently launched a new website called Language mean Business. The website is in 22 European languages and targets SMEs all over Europe with information about how they can learn from other successful SMEs and improve their language strategies without huge investments. We collaborate with business intermediaries such as chambers of commerce and employer organisations in order to reach out to large audiences.
Through our Lifelong Learning Programme we also have the ability to co-finance other initiatives with similar aims. One example is the CELAN network, which was initiated through the European Business Platform for Multilingualism. The network is preparing an online platform through which companies can assess their situation and get advice on how to improve their multilingual resources.
S & B: The European VinoLingua project supports the creation of specific language learning methods and materials for winegrowers and wine merchants in France, Austria, Italy and Spain. How can such an approach improve the competitiveness of the companies involved?
Kristina Cunningham: The needs analysis carried out by the project partners clearly revealed that wine tasting is a professional activity that has to be mastered linguistically, with some related work (i.e. a visit to the vineyard and to the cellar, sales talk, general contact skills, etc.). English is not enough to convey highly emotional and culture-related content concerning wine. The VinoLingua material is perfectly adapted to the real situations of the users, which saves time and money while also motivating the learners. If the wine merchants feel confident using the languages of their customers and collaborators in other countries, this will help them close more and better business deals than their competitors struggling with English only.
S & B: The ProMaCoLT project provides guidance to different stakeholders to optimise the results of language courses. What are the possible mismatches? And how can they be overcome?
Kristina Cunningham: In many cases the companies or public institutions that fund the language courses don't clearly specify the practical learning objectives which they have in mind when organising language courses for their staff. In order to make sure language courses do what they set out to and to gear the results to the employability of the learners and the competitiveness of the companies funding the courses, an integral approach is needed. The findings of the project should help all actors - learners, language course providers and the organisations funding the training course - to maximise the return on their investment in terms of time and money.