Mind your language

Mind your language

Second and third languages are a must to win export business, says accomplished linguist Julie Morris, sales manager of Perry Process Equipment in Newton Aycliffe.

Julie Morris is one of North East business’s top linguists – winner of the Export Communicator title in recent North East Exporters Awards. Her language skills have played a big role in her firm’s 60% leap in sales of used process equipment in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Julie, a recognised champion of the Regional Language Network, is now turning her skills towards French markets. Here she promotes the value of language proficiency in business.

Which is your favourite language and why? After living seven years in Germany I’d say that’s become my second home, and German my second language.

What advantages does a company enjoy having staff able to chat to foreign clients in their language? It gives the customer confidence to converse. Even one who can speak English prefers negotiating in their own language. By employing staff with language skills, a company can develop relationships internationally with customers they may not have been able to deal with before, and so do more business in markets they might not normally have access to, thus helping increase sales and turnover. At Perry, lots of our work is with small to medium sized companies that sometimes aren’t confident dealing in English. We’ve seen a sales increase over four years in the German and French speaking markets - a result, I believe, of communicating with the customers in their own language.

What does being a Language Champion registered by the Regional Network Language North East entail? It enables me to work with local schools and businesses to raise awareness of the importance of languages. Business Language Champions aim to tackle the decline in language learning and encourage students and employees to learn a language. We can talk in schools about the importance of languages to business, also allow students and teachers to visit companies and see how languages are used in business, or provide work experience placements. We have a local German student part-time who assists with market research in German-speaking markets.

Are there any languages you would like to learn besides those you speak already? Besides having studied French and German at university, I’ve also attended courses in other languages which I would like to continue. While living in Germany, on the border with Holland, I did a course in Dutch. I’ve alsoattended courses in Spanish and Polish and would like to develop these further.

Would you recommend every company keen to export to take a linguist onto the staff? Either that or develop the skills of existing employees. This alternative can also raise employee satisfaction and motivation. We underestimate the importance of language training in the UK and always assume others will speak English. I can’t count the number of French and German customers who’ve told me how impressed they are that someone from the UK can speak to them in their own language, and how they don’t often experience that when dealing with UK companies. By speaking, or even trying to speak, the other person’s language we gain a better reputation in Europe. It has certainly helped our company to do more business.

Which language did you find most difficult to learn, why, and how did you master it? German probably, due to the grammar. It helps if you can spend some time overseas. This is when you really learn a language. Following A Levels, I spent some time with a company at Werdohl, Derwentside’s partner town in Germany. Even now I try to read German magazines and watch German TV when abroad. The internet too gives access to a lot more help with language training. As part of my degree course, I spent my third year in Reims and Heidelberg. Both placements were very enjoyable for different reasons. I made good friends and am in touch with them today. Recently I’ve joined a German society that enables me to meet other German speakers living in the area.

Which sources benefited you? After the A Level French and German I continued these languages along with international marketing at Northumbria University. Now I travel in my job so I get the opportunity to practise my languages abroad.

What would you reply to anyone who says: “I’ve never been any good at languages”? It’s never too late to learn. There are so many ways nowadays. you needn’t just rely on teachers at school or audio courses.

When did you first get interested in languages? At school I always obtained good marks for languages. I may also have been influenced by my parents having lived in the Netherlands for a couple of years before I was born. When they returned to the UK my dad also travelled a lot in his job. That possibly made me develop an interest in travelling, new languages and cultures.

Fewer children take any foreign language at schools now; have you a message for parents? A foreign language gives you more opportunities in the workplace. The world becomes your oyster. If I had children I’d teach them languages very early on. I’ve a number of friends currently bringing their children up to be bilingual - a great idea. Part of the UK’s problem is that we don’t learn a language at school until we are much older. I was 11 before I started learning French and it wasn’t until a year later I started learning German. In continental Europe training in English starts much earlier. I always encourage people to persuade their children to choose a least one language in their options. As far as I’m aware it isn’t necessary for students now to study a language to GCSE level. I don’t know if the Government will change this, but the number of students studying languages to A and degree levels has dropped dramatically, and some courses aren’t available now as demand isn’t there.

You run company tutorials in language and cultural skills to help reception and administration staff welcome foreign visitors; you also create signage to help international lorry drivers calling. What’s the response to language learning from other staff members? Most are happy to have a few stock phrases to use if I’m out of the office. Many of our team members already have some knowledge of at least one other language. Merci et danke, Julie. Julie, from Shotley Bridge, wasn’t lost for words during a recent holiday with her partner in Mexico, either. She said yes to an engagement!