NICOLAS BOUZOU, head of economic research firm Asterès, publishes a report on foreign language learning by employees. Only four out of 10 French people have a good command of a second language.

Have French employees’ foreign language skills improved?

There is currently no nationwide study. On the other hand, a European study sought to measure the proportion of people claiming to speak foreign languages well enough to take part in a conversation. Between 2006 and 2012, the proportion of French people claiming to speak English well rose from 36% to 39%. This remains low. In Portugal, this proportion fell by five points, while it rose by 15 points in Austria.

You explain that a company with 10% of its employees fluent in a foreign language would see its sales increase by 1.53%.

How do you achieve this?

Our model is based on neoclassical labor market theory, according to which wages are representative of employee productivity, which in turn is reflected in sales. It has been documented that the cognitive gains conferred by learning and then mastering a foreign language increase an employee’s productivity, which translates on average into an increase of 7,000 euros gross on the annual salary of a worker with a good command of the language.

More broadly, what impact does language learning have on growth?

On an individual level, people who master or learn a foreign language are more likely to find a job, and less likely to lose it, than monolinguals. Companies find it easier to recruit bilinguals than monolinguals, given the same skills. What’s more, according to neuroscience, people who learn or master a foreign language are more creative and adaptable, making them more productive and earning a better living than monolinguals. At company level, the increased productivity of multilinguals translates into higher sales. Finally, at the macroeconomic level, the higher the proportion of French people with a command of foreign languages, the greater the increase in exports.

Does this mean that part of our trade deficit is due to the fact that our business leaders are not very polyglot?

The company managers we interviewed emphasized their difficulties in recruiting candidates with the language skills required for the position in question. The question of language skills is therefore very much present. These studies do not raise the question of the language skills of the managers themselves, but it is reasonable to think that this is a problem…

Which sectors would benefit most from improved foreign language skills?

The effect is stronger on services than on goods, because interpersonal exchanges, at the heart of service provision, gain in value if they take place in the customer’s language. It’s in a service provider’s best interest to master the language of the markets he intends to serve. Tourism, in particular, will react more strongly than services as a whole. France, the world’s leading tourist destination and a service-oriented country, could greatly benefit from stronger language skills.

Interview Raphaël Legendre