Learning a foreign language has been going out of fashion in British schools, lately. What does this mean for our export potential? Tim Hiscock, aka The Accidental Exporter, answers this question for the Sunny Sky Solutions blog.

“I’ve never been any good at languages, I’m afraid.”

“Rubbish! What do you think you are doing now?! Speaking English fluently, that’s what. And some people say that’s one of the more difficult ones!”

Some years ago, I overheard a colleague have this conversation with a supplier. In a flippant way, he was making a very good point, I think. It’s language that enabled the species homo sapiens to evolve. International trade simply would never have happened if people from different countries and cultures couldn’t find an efficient way to communicate with each other.

That much, I hope, is beyond dispute. But how important is it for someone like me, working in an international sales role, to have foreign language skills?

Some years ago, I used to see a supposedly funny, official looking notice in shops and offices. You probably remember it. It read, “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.” The joke wore pretty thin I recall. At least one despairing wag responded with “You do have to be mad to work here, but it doesn’t help.”  It’s a tired old cliché now, but I think it helps to illustrate my point.

As export managers go, I get things pretty easy. I don’t have to deal with the whole world, just something like a quarter of the total number of countries, comprising less than one tenth of the global population. I look after a quaint little region called Europe. Even here, there are at least forty different official languages and numerous unofficial ones, dialects and local variations. And in how many of these can I hold a conversation? The most optimistic answer is three. And that’s two more than some very successful exporters I could tell you about!

So being able to speak my customer’s language is not always necessary. But that is not because everyone speaks English!

Language is a big part of the cultural barrier that exporters need to overcome. Any successful sales transaction begins with a pitch of some kind. In the age of the internet, a lot of businesses have discovered their export potential just because end users or re-sellers have found their website and got in touch. English speakers are lucky, because their language is the most widely used on the internet, so even without thinking about language, many businesses in the English speaking world can get a head start.

But the important thing with a pitch is to get noticed. For every potential customer who takes the trouble to search for my products on Google using English language phrases, how many others don’t? It’s quite a simple task to add at least a bit of foreign language content to a website, and it frequently pays dividends. But anyone going down this route needs to beware: writing a commercial message in another language is a very exacting task that should only be attempted by a true professional, ideally a native speaker of the target language. And whatever you do, don’t even THINK about doing your own translation via a website translator. Here’s why:

This is an extract from a recipe for making shortbread:

Preparation method

Cut into rounds or fingers and place onto a baking tray. Sprinkle with icing sugar and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

I just translated that into another language, using one of the better translation sites, and then translated it back into English again. This is the result:

Preparation method

The judge cut or finger and place on a baking tray. Spread with sugar and other sources of electricity chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.


It’s about as clear as mud, isn’t it? As Robert McLoskey once said;

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”

The most important thing for anyone working in international business is to understand the limits of their knowledge.

An export sales manager’s job is more or less the same as any sales manager’s job, with a few additional obstacles. For example, I have been at an exhibition in Germany this week. I know enough German to greet someone, introduce myself and explain the nature of my business. In this market, I usually find that the person I am speaking to speaks better English than I speak German, and it’s very likely we will switch to speaking English. But by greeting them and starting the conversation in their language, I have at least broken the ice. I have found that this makes for a much more constructive conversation than approaching people and asking if they speak English. I have also prepared a printed summary of my products in German (professionally translated, of course!) which I plan to leave with my catalogue.

I can get by in a similar way in France. But that leaves some forty odd countries where I don’t speak my target’s language at all. In these situations, I just have to get by. In truth, businesses in many of the smaller countries are used to the fact that no-one knows their language, and have therefore become excellent linguists early in their lives. There’s a good chance that, if they don’t speak English, they will speak German or French. So my limited language skills get me by most of the time.

Does an export manager need to speak other languages? No. But it helps!

To read more entertaining and well-informed blog posts by The Accidental Exporter, visit http://accidentalexporter.wordpress.com/