By Geoffrey Bowden, General Secretary of the Association of Translation Companies

The UK is, at its heart, an outward-facing trading nation and British businesses feature across the world in nearly every market. However, we are missing out on significant export opportunities to an estimated £48bn a year because of poor language skills. This is 3.5 per cent of GDP and poses a substantial issue that needs to be overcome if we are to balance the trade deficit. A significant proportion of this lost income comes from small and medium sized enterprises and the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) is running a campaign to highlight the need for exporters to meet the language needs of the markets in which they operate.

It is not simply a matter of translating the company website word for word. There are significant cultural considerations to take into account as words and phrases can mean entirely different things, sometimes quite rude. A classic example would be KFC’s slogan “finger-lickin’ good”, which became the far less appealing “eat your fingers off” when translated into Mandarin — an offensive gesture in China.

The language problem is a deep-seated one in the UK. A British Chambers of Commerce survey found that 62 per cent of companies that wished to export stated that a lack of language capability was holding them back from expanding overseas. However, according to the CBI only four per cent of employers state foreign languages as the most important factor when considering recruitment. The result is that many exporting companies rely on their potential customers speaking English and it is this factor that leads to lost business. Ultimately, a customer will always prefer to do business in their own language and will search out suppliers that are able to do this.

Instead of simply relying on the firm they are doing business with to communicate in English to bridge the language gap, companies need to make more of an effort to learn other languages, bring in employees who have the necessary skills, and employ the use of professional language service providers. Communication is a major barrier when it comes to business of any kind, and speaking the customers’ language while having a grasp of their cultural needs will go a long way to push export sales up.

Language goes right through a company’s operations and every aspect needs to be considered. An exporting company should have a clear language strategy that is based on the needs of the customer and their potential interaction at every stage of the relationship. Marketing, sales, product/service delivery and customer support all need to be reviewed and communicated in the right language. UK Trade and Investment are able to provide assistance in the development of language strategies and SMEs, in particular, are encouraged to take advantage of these services.

Business leaders, and those running smaller enterprises especially, have access to some of the world’s most lucrative markets but many are not taking the fullest advantage. Getting a comprehensive language strategy in place and the support of experts to make it a reality is a vital step for UK businesses to start capturing more of the £48bn it currently loses every year.