How Learning a New Language Can Benefit Your Business
Most businesses now have an international presence, especially digital savvy businesses with ambitions to grow their brand online. But how much more effective could they be if they took languages other than their own seriously?
This question applies most to businesses based in English language countries more than others.
Statistics show the yawning gap between language capability in Europe, for example, and the U.S. Only 18% of Americans can claim to speak at least some of another language, most typically Spanish, while 56% of Europeans speak at least one other language.
Many American businesses, and probably a lot of businesses based in other English language countries, tend to have the belief that English is the world’s predominant language of trade, so why bother employing multilingual, or even bilingual, staff?
Is it really cost effective for a business to ensure they train personnel in one or more languages that could potentially boost their influence? Is it worthwhile for entrepreneurs to devote some of their spare time learning another language in order to have a more important, and possibly more remunerative, role in their company?
The case for business multilingual language capability
It’s hard to refute the idea that internationally focused businesses do have to deal with the fact that they are doing business with many people whose own preference for communication is not necessarily English. There is at least some evidence to back up the idea that those businesses that don’t take the language of business seriously are losing out. For example, recent analysis from the U.S. Committee on Economic Development (CED) has estimated the loss to U.S. businesses because of a lack of understanding or misunderstanding stemming from language barriers to amount to 2 billion dollars a year.
One question is who exactly in a business should be bi- or multilingual? It stands to reason that those personnel who regularly liaise with foreign counterparts or who regularly spend time overseas spearheading sales campaigns or recruitment drives would be more effective if they spoke the language of the country or countries they visited. There is anecdotal evidence of the beneficial effects that some leading business executives have had while working overseas because of their ability to speak the language of their hosts and their familiarity with the local culture.
Coca Cola’s former CEO and chairman, Douglas Daft, has reflected on his rise to the top in the company being linked to his three decades of work in Asia. He thinks that his understanding of other cultures and languages other than his own was central to his ability to be a business leader and strongly believes that this is an essential skill for anyone working for Coca Cola, certainly a recognizable international brand if ever there was one!
Similarly, General Motors former CEO and President, Richard Wagoner, says that his ability to understand and speak Portuguese, developed during his time working for the company in Brazil, made his time communicating with the business community in Brazil that much more effective.
Should you learn a foreign language for business?
The jury is still out when it comes to learning other languages by entrepreneurs and business professionals. There is no clear evidence that learning another language would increase your revenue or even your attractiveness as a candidate for a particular business except for a fairly narrow role, i.e. in foreign liaison.
One reason for this is that many people in the English speaking world are not necessarily learning the most important languages in a rapidly changing world. European languages are still the most popular in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Britain, yet foreign trade with Europe by the former three at any rate has tilted towards that with Asia, not Europe.
This is demonstrated, to some extent, by the relative differences in salary enhancement for U.S. employees of internationally focused businesses. The most popular language by far amongst those who can speak another language is Spanish. This seems to make sense until it is revealed that an understanding of Spanish contributed to a rather measly 1.7% increase over those who were monolingual.
Fluency in Chinese and Russian meant an increase in 4% - a little more, but not necessarily a great incentive for people to think worthwhile learning another language other than their own.
The reverse is true for those people who migrate to the U.S. Learning English, particularly if they become very fluent, can make all the difference salary wise for immigrants. Those who learn to speak English “very well” are able to enjoy an average of 30% more in salary than those whose English language proficiency is not so good.
U.S. and Australian businesses can learn from Britain
America may be a particularly backward example of seizing on the advantages of learning another language for business enhancement. In the English speaking world, the U.K. is streets ahead, it seems. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that Britain, at least until very recently, was heavily Eurocentric in terms of trade, with many U.K. businesses having a strong business relationship with European consumers and business counterparts.
The British Council has done extensive research on the desirability of multilanguage proficiency for business and which languages top executives in particular should focus on for the next decade. Their “Languages for the Future” report has pinpointed the following languages to be the most important when it comes to enhancing trading opportunities and the building of international relationships: Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Mandarin.
International trade is a reality. Fewer businesses do business solely within their own national boundaries. Even within the confines of a single nation, there is an increasing multicultural and hence multilingual consumer base. Businesses that ignore this reality do so at their own financial peril.
Just who, however, in a business with a strong international presence, should benefit most from learning another language is not necessarily that clear and the evidence so far is far from consistent.