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Being understood is the priority for British businesses post-Brexit

UK companies cannot afford to rely on Anglophone export markets alone. Technology provides the agility they require to overcome language barriers as they expand into new markets.

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, corporations are considering how to adapt to a radically altered business landscape. There is little doubt that there will be considerable economic turbulence as new laws and regulations define the challenges and opportunities companies will face.

A paramount consideration for businesses contemplating their future in a post-Brexit landscape is the need to forge new partnerships with enterprises beyond as well as, within Europe. And as they do, they will need to demonstrate a capacity to conduct themselves competently in local language. This challenge will be heightened further if the freedom of movement for EU citizens is revoked, as fewer foreign language speakers will reside in the UK.

Losing out to business because of language barriers is not a new problem – government statistics show that the UK loses about 3.5% of its GDP every year because of a lack of language skills and cultural awareness in the workforce. But, it is likely to become an even bigger problem if British companies don’t address a language shortfall in the run up to Brexit.

It’s not enough for English speaking business leaders to simply take advantage of the rest of the world’s need to learn their language. So, what can business leaders do to ensure the language barrier is not an obstacle as they seek to buy and sell services and products across the globe?

Aside from learning new languages from scratch, company decision makers have two options. They can employ in-house foreign language speakers to cover each territory they wish to target. But this is costly and ineffective for those organisations looking for multiple languages. It also severely restricts the talent pool as only those who are multilingual can be considered for a particular role – when considering that, according to the 2011 consensus, just 7.7 per cent of the population in England and Wales spoke a language other than English at home, the severity of this issue becomes apparent.

The second option available to companies wishing to conduct themselves in another language is to hire an interpreter for meetings and events. While this is adequate to make oneself understood, it relies on consecutive interpretation, whereby each speaker must stop at regular intervals so that the interpreter can translate for the audience. This means meetings not only take twice as long as they should, but they can be choppy, interrupted and awkward, which is frustrating for UK businesses as they aim to put their best foot forward.

Neither of the options available is ideal for UK companies looking to scale-up internationally. Employing native speakers of specific languages is cumbersome and expensive, while relying on consecutive translation requires considerable forward-planning and can make presentations tiresome and clumsy. But there is now a third option.

Today, technology is available to provide services whereby attendees of an event or meeting can listen-in to real-time interpreting in their chosen language on headphones via a dedicated app. Instead of relying on cumbersome consecutive interpreting, executives can access quality simultaneous interpreting remotely, with the interpreter based anywhere in the world.

This solution can be used for face-to-face business meetings, larger conferences or virtual online meetings, in as many languages as are required. For example, using this kind of platform, a British businessman in São Paulo could organise interpreting for an upcoming meeting in English, Portuguese and if a colleague from Argentina wanted to join, Spanish could be added, all at very short notice. No forward-planning or specialist equipment is required.

In the past, simultaneous interpreting has been out of reach to many businesses because of its prohibitive price. But now technology is driving rates down by around 50% of what a conventional interpreting solution would cost because the need for interpreters’ travel, accommodation and onsite AV hardware is completely removed. With today’s technology meetings tend to be smoother and more productive, meaning UK companies can be more agile as they negotiate new business agreements in a post-Brexit landscape.

We have seen many sectors undergo significant change due to technological disruption. Across property, transport and banking, business models have been turned on their heads and in many cases automation has replaced human activities in the workplace. This is not the case with interpreting. Simultaneous interpretation requires an ability to capture nuances and subtleties that can only be done by a human. However, technology has provided a platform to empower interpreters and users to connect remotely. By reducing costs and administration, technology has opened the door for many companies that would have never considered simultaneous interpreting in the past.

With the overwhelming majority of British people confessing they are bad at speaking foreign languages, the need for multilingual solutions to forge contacts with new markets outside the EU will be greater than ever before. And without embracing new technologies to overcome language barriers, trade relations and export performance will suffer further following the UK’s departure from the EU. Smart companies will embrace such technologies to provide them with the agility required to excel in a post-Brexit environment.

Kim Ludvigsen

With an engineering and business degree, I have worked in the financial industry and with start-ups for over 25 years. However, I have always had a keen interest in languages. My mother tongue Danish is only spoken by 5 million people, so when I after high school moved to Switzerland, I had to expand my language command. I discovered that with a positive attitude and a bit of effort, I could learn a new language in two months and today I speak seven actively.

While working for Swiss Post 2004-2010, I sometimes used interpreting and I was very surprised how old-fashioned the underlying technology was. A few years later I met with my old colleague Peter Frei, and together we picked up the idea of developing a remote interpreting platform, using browser-based software and mobile apps. A team of competent language and software specialist was quickly assembled, and by the end of 2014, a prototype developed and Interprefy incorporated.

I quickly discovered that the technology we started developing turned out to be quite controversial, or to use a modern Venture Capital expression "disruptive", meaning that is has the potential to radically transform an entire industry.

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