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British companies should incentivise employees to upskill in foreign languages. 🇬🇧 Here’s why, and how.

Picture this: An important negotiation is underway between an education consultancy and a Chinese family with a considerable “money is no object” budget to ensure their only child receives a holistic education at a top UK independent school. There are two consultants in the firm.

One speaks Mandarin fluently which has facilitated an understanding of business etiquette, socio cultural nuances, and the intricacies of what Chinese families want, need and expect from such a service. The other does not speak Mandarin. Which of the two do you think the Chinese family is more likely to recruit? 

It’s not the most subtle example, I will grant you that. However, there can be no doubt that the employability between the two consultants is significant, particularly within the specific industry and market in question.

I won’t bang on about how beautiful and wonderful I think languages are. Instead, I’m going to get straight into the financial sense of how British companies can upskill their employees in foreign languages, fast.

Do or die, mes amis.

1/ It makes tangible, financial sense. 

Let’s take the above example of the two educational consultants and take a generous learning budget of 15,000 GBP. For small companies that don’t have a significant budget to implement foreign language learning skills, there are a number of ways to make your investment go further such as through small group sessions, hosting competitions to capture the most motivated employees, and doubling down on making foreign language learning part of your culture. More on this below.

For now, the numbers. 

Increased Client Acquisition:

  • Without Mandarin-speaking consultants: 5 clients/year

  • With Mandarin-speaking consultants: 10 clients/year

  • Additional clients: 10 clients/year - 5 clients/year = 5 clients/year

Higher Conversion Rates:

  • Without Mandarin-speaking consultants: 20% conversion rate

  • With Mandarin-speaking consultants: 30% conversion rate

  • Additional conversion rate: 30% - 20% = 10%

Premium Pricing:

  • Without Mandarin-speaking consultants: £10,000 per client

  • With Mandarin-speaking consultants: £10,000 * 110% = £11,000 per client

  • Additional revenue per client: £11,000 - £10,000 = £1,000 per client

Competitive Advantage:

  • Without Mandarin-speaking consultants: 100 clients/year * 5% market share = 5 clients/year

  • With Mandarin-speaking consultants: 100 clients/year * 5% market share increase = 5 additional clients/year

Considering each factor separately:

  • Increased Client Acquisition: Additional clients: 5 clients/year * £10,000 per client = £50,000/year

  • Higher Conversion Rates: Additional converted clients: 10% of total clients * £10,000 per client = £10,000/year

  • Premium Pricing: Additional revenue per client: £1,000 per client total clients = £1,000 100 clients/year = £100,000/year

  • Competitive Advantage: Additional clients: 5 clients/year * £10,000 per client = £50,000/year

Total Increased Revenue: £50,000/year (Increased Client Acquisition) + £10,000/year (Higher Conversion Rates) + £100,000/year (Premium Pricing) + £50,000/year (Competitive Advantage) = £210,000/year. Let's say the company invest 15,000 GBP into Mandarin lessons, workshops, and materials. By investing in Mandarin language skills and having Mandarin-speaking consultants, the consultancy could potentially generate an additional £195,000 in revenue per year. Boom 😏💥

2/ Enhances empathy, creativity and communication. 

For me, learning a language to a high level is like jetting off to another world, but inside the comforts of your very own soul. It’s cheaper and more wholesome than trying to go and live on the moon. Maybe Elon Musk should just learn Spanish? Jokes aside, learning a language opens a new dimension of empathy and understanding which English alone cannot achieve.

Creativity is effectively doubled as your vocabulary swells, and through the appreciation of cultural nuances, ways of communication become much more than a handshake or a nod. You find yourself noticing body language, hand gestures, mannerisms and even facial expressions more than ever. 

Humans are emotional creatures. When entering new markets, an understanding of these nuances can be "make or break" for locals. Mandella said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Besides the subtle enhancements to communication, there is the tangible increase in being able to explore new markets. A study found that “Language is a means of finding opportunities in non-common language markets that may not otherwise be offered. Hence when culturally and linguistically informed, the seller is better able to decide on the appropriate marketing effort, at least for their products.” [1]

3/ Being human will maintain your competitive advantage. AI will not. 

A dangerous argument is surfacing that if AI can translate, interpret, speak in real time etc., why bother to learn a language? Now more than ever, to keep our brains alive, we should invest heavily in language learning. For businesses, keeping your employees’  brains healthy should be high on the priorities list.

Brain health and, perhaps surprisingly, personal branding. As technology gets better, and automation becomes the norm, our personalities, humour, character, quirks, and humanness will mark us as unique. I’ve long looked at the effects of language learning on identity. Personal branding is all about being able to present yourself, your values, mission and skillset to the world in a way that resonates and showcases your ikigai.

While the two may not be directly obvious, but learning a language elicits parts of you that you haven’t explored before. Your soul becomes brighter. How cool to have a fiercely competitive team with strong personal brands and strong notions of who they are. 

4/ The effect on your children.

Monolingual parents who make an active effort to learn languages can have a significantly positive impact on their children. Both my parents are monolingual, and between my three siblings and I, we have learned French, Mandarin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, and Spanish. Unfortunately, none of us aligned and we don’t share any of those languages, but for me, seeing my mother make an effort to speak French during our day trips across the channel to Calais, inspired me to want to learn French. 

Companies who prioritise foreign language learning among their employees can leave a lasting, positive effect on personal development, which trickles down into households, leaving parents wanting to teach their children a foreign language too. Fluency is not a prerequisite; sometimes, inspiration is enough to fuel a child’s curiosity to brilliant heights. 

So, with all that said and done. Here’s a 5 step process for how companies can get stuck in.

Step 1/ Align specific skills and situations. 

One of the ways to achieve (any) goals is to keep the target specific and realistic. In the case of our education consultancy, that could be to:

a/ be able to talk with ease about the services offered; 

b/ (culturally) understand parent fears, ambitions, reservations, and hopes for their child; and 

c/ to have a strong vocabulary foundation on all things education specifically. 

Yes, a foundation of grammar and functional vocabulary will ideally be taught initially to situate the language in its natural context, however for business purposes, aligning these goals with the consultant and creating manageable milestones together is the first step. 

Step 2/ Understand learning styles, needs and access. 

I like to think we learnt a lot from the pandemic, but sometimes I’m not so sure. One thing that cannot be refuted is that online learning does work; educators were forced to innovate through technology, which has laid a solid foundation for further experimentation with AI in the classroom in the wake of the Chat GPT frenzy. As such, we can also leverage digital tools to craft personalised learning plans. 

In reality, a lot of people prefer to spend their evenings in the pub rather than drilling through vocab lists. But if going to the pub was the same as learning Mandarin, we’d be onto a winner. It’s all about positive association, finding the right learning style and methods for you, and being able to access resources as and when you need them.

For our education consultant, this might include, for example, an array of online translation tools, dictionaries, Wechat audio templates, sample communications, style guides with targeted vocabulary, podcasts, animations and infographics. Integrating learning into one’s daily routine can lead to significant improvements over time, especially when the learning is paired with positive reinforcement and association. 

3/ Gamify and microdose language learning. 

Bite-sized learning makes the learning more digestible, and in the case of busy professionals, is more realistic. We learn faster when the content is short and spaced out [2]. According to the British Council, “learning design that incorporates game principles  such as positive competition, collaboration, points and rewards, narrative and characters boosts engagement, motivation and retention" [3]. Some initial ideas could include the following:

  1. Before every meeting, 5 minutes is spent going through a new phrase / reviewing vocab in a fun way (instead of small talk).

  2. Infographics and posters are put up to increase familiarity of Mandarin in the office.

  3. A buddy scheme is put in place for the non-Mandarin speaking consultant to shadow the Mandarin speaking consultant, note-taking on any changes in mannerisms etc.

  4. Mandarin benchmarks of progress are measured by HSK exams; employees could be financially incentivised to pass these exams, budget permitting.

4/ Establish a culture of (language) learning and celebrate multiculturalism. 

If foreign language learning becomes the norm in the workplace, British employees are less likely to consider it out of the ordinary, especially when in comparison to the national standard. Practising language skills at work not only boosts proficiency and confidence but also inspires reluctant colleagues to try. 

“The BCC language surveys (2003, 2004) use a conceptual framework that classifies four types of British exporters in terms of their attitude towards language skills: opportunists, developers, adaptors and enablers. Analysis of the surveys shows that opportunists and developers report that their exports are declining, while adaptors and enablers experience an increase.”  [4]

Foreign language games such as Private Joke ® (for sale here). can help to normalise language learning in the workplace. At Olea, we deliver innovative and creative workshops (Createathons) to kickstart a culture of foreign language learning and multiculturalism in the workplace; by implementing gamification, positive association, and micro-learning, our techniques cement a solid foundation for sustained foreign language learning. 

5/ Provide one to one coaching, group practice, and timely feedback.

Practice is important, but sustaining long term motivation is essential; language is a living skill and without sustained and integrated practice, a reliable feedback loop, and positive association, the foreign languages upskilling investment is less likely to pay itself back.

Ensuring that training is learner-centred and interactive, providing maximum practice time, is key. One to one coaching, certainly in the early stages, can ensure a solid foundation is achieved before the employees start to mingle among themselves in the new language.

Gallup research found that giving timely and frequent feedback keeps employees engaged [4]. Employees need to know when they are speaking inaccurately or clearly, make the correction and learn from it. 

For motivated adult learners, typically 100 to 200 hours of guided learning will get you from one level to another (when considering the European CERF, not Mandarin's HSK). As your employees language skills strengthen, and a culture of language learning is fostered such that it becomes the norm, a culture of creativity, internationalism, and communication will start to seep into the cracks.

At Olea, we design workshops for companies to implement a culture of language learning. Whether you are exploring new markets. have a linguistically diverse team that aren't leveraging full use of their language skills, or simply want to create a more global-looking culture, we have significant experience to help you on your way to fluency. Our education tastes more like lamb stew rather than McDonald's. Our techniques are rooted, longterm, and sustainable.


If you are interested in a one-off Olea Createathon workshop for your team, or a more sustained, long-term plan (3 months), please email Olive at olivia@oleaeducation with the number of employees, the target language (we currently only offer French & Mandarin), and an outline of your goals and current linguistic demographic. We can schedule a free 30-minute initial call to see whether we're a good fit.

Olive, Founder of Olea Education, holds an MPhil in Second Language Education Research from the University of Cambridge, and is an incoming PGCE (French with Mandarin) student at Oxford University. She holds a 1st Class Hons in Modern Languages (French and Mandarin) with Business Management and currently resides between the UK and France.



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