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Biz talk: Overseas and stuttering

From CNN's Richard Quest and Meara Erdozain

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(CNN) -- Habla Usted Espanol? Parla Italiano? Does doing business overseas in another language leave you stuttering or cowering in the corner in front of your clients?

Doing a deal in your own language is one thing, but in a foreign language it can be quite another.

Yet these days, with global marketing at record levels and where one in three jobs depends to some extent on international trade, executives are being asked to get out there and talk the talk.

In the past studying a foreign language for business used to conjure up horrible images of repetitive high school classes full of CEOs studying verb conjugation.

But now a whole armory of products exists out there to assist you -- fumbling around with a pocket phrasebook is a thing of the past.

"We've moved on through tape recorders to video, through to multimedia computers," Graham Davies a Professor of Computer-Assisted Language Learning told CNN.

"The main thing is that they offer opportunities for much more intensive practice on a one-to-one basis."

Ever since the invention of the tape recorder learning aids have become more and more interactive, breaking language down into its constituent parts.

"There are units in grammar, and units in vocabulary and even online where's there's audio support and video support. A great deal of this is based on visual interaction and visual memorizing," reiterated Davies.

Currently, is one of the more comprehensive based language-related Web sites on the Internet offering information on languages from Akkadian to Zarma.

Yet learning the speech patterns of native speakers remains a prominent feature of any language learning material and CD ROMs still offer some of the best flexibility in terms of self-tutoring in this area.

"It's accessible at any time that you need it. You don't have to wait for a particular time to go to a class when the teacher is available," Norman Harris of DynEd, CD ROM based language products told CNN.

"The other key thing [you] can do is repeat things ... in order to understand what's there."

If you have no basic knowledge of a language, however, it can be an uphill struggle when it comes to overseas corporate talk, which can certainly be more technical.

"Many business courses will assume some knowledge of the language already," one retailer told CNN.

"This can make it quite difficult when people want to go straight into business language."

Over recent years, there has been a significant increase in job vacancies specifying a preference for foreign language ability, a point not lost on Trade Partners UK, a government body that actively tries to promote partnership trade through communication.

They believe there is a lot company executives can do to improve their ability to communicate with customers and prospects in the language that works for a specific market.

Their advice is get out there and get talking.

"The best method for learning a foreign language is to speak it as much as possible, language is socially motivated and it's socially generated," one teacher told CNN.

Not yet instantaneous

Although 91 percent of companies worldwide will offer language training prior to an overseas posting, according to the Organization Resources Counsellors, for many it is the immediate overseas prospect that stumps the biz traveler.

What if your company suddenly throws you its Russian portfolio and flies you to Moscow that day?

It maybe time for the pocket translator, but even the latest technology is still a long way away from a machine that can simultaneously interpret a telephone call.

Online translation websites such as Altavista's Babel Fish and FreeTranslation offer speedy typed translation, but for speech, its currently all talk.

"Speech technology has moved on a lot in the last 20 years but the problem arises at the recognition level. Human beings have different speeds of delivery, they have different accents," Davies says.

"Training a machine to recognize all the different types of voices is difficult maybe in the next ten's got a long way to go".

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