Business Benefits of Foreign Languages

On 11/28/2009, in Informal Education, by Jordan Wilson

Successful individuals know that some of the best investments they have ever made was not in stocks or bonds, but rather in themselves. I believe that one of the better investments you can make is in learning a second (or more) language.

There are a variety of reasons that I think this is true, both in monetary payback and in personal enrichment.

Foreign Languages are an Investment

Consider that you are 20 years old and have $4000 to invest. You could invest that in a stock or mutual fund that performs well; let’s pretend it rises 15% per year (very high return for a stock as compared to historic averages). In rough calculations, by the time you are 40 that initial $4000 should grow to about $66,000 (ignoring taxes, dividends, transaction costs, etc.). Not too bad.

Or, you could invest that money in learning a second language.  For $4000, you should become fairly proficient. While impossible to quantify the return, there will be one that should exceed the 15% from the prior paragraph. How can this be?

Foreign Languages are Valuable Skills on the Resume

First, you are adding a valuable skill to your resume. In today’s global marketplace, businesses increasingly must deal with people that may not speak English well or who possess a different culture to that of North America. The ability to speak a second language is becoming more of a request by companies looking for new staff, especially in client facing positions.

While applicants for jobs often have many technical qualifications, in North America there is still a lack of second language skills. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2002, only 44% of American high school students and 8% of university undergraduates were enrolled in foreign language courses. By 2006, per anecdotal information, enrollment increased to about 10% for undergraduates. So while there has been an increase, the overall numbers are still very small.

When applying for a job, you are competing with other applicants that share many of the same skill sets. Adding a skill that most of your competition may not possess will give you an advantage in getting that job.

Foreign Languages Show You Can Learn and Have Interpersonal Skills

Second, ranking among the most important criteria for hiring staff is; a) the ability to demonstrate that they can successfully learn new skills, and b) the possession of strong interpersonal skills.

Becoming proficient in another language requires a significant amount of time and effort (unless, it would seem, you are Swiss). By demonstrating you can communicate in another language, you are showing your prospective employer that you can successfully learn new, and difficult, skills, such as a foreign language. In an employer’s mind, this ability will translate to other new tasks you will need to acquire in the position.

Learning another language requires the development of strong interpersonal skills. Yes, you can load Rosetta Stone or Berlitz on your computer and sit in the dark learning to speak German. However, to really learn a language you need to interact with native speakers and immerse yourself in the culture of the language.

One of the best ways to learn a language is to take an immersion course in a foreign country. You live with a local family and deal each day with unfamiliar situations in a strange language. Having completed immersion courses in French Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador, I can tell you first hand that trying to assimilate (or simply survive) forces you to improve your interpersonal as well as language skills.

For the sheer language learning, not to mention the cultural understanding, friendships, and pure adventure, I cannot recommend an immersion program highly enough. In a separate posting, I will discuss things to consider when considering studying abroad.

Foreign Languages Differentiate You From Your Peers

Third, anything that differentiates you from the crowd is a positive. Well, maybe not a prison record, but you get my meaning. When applying for an open position, the most important thing is to attract the attention of the person reviewing your resume.

In my experience, the typical individual reviewing your resume is reading it about 10:00 p.m., after a long day of work. This person has a stack of 50 or more 2 page, white sheeted resumes in front of him or her, each stating pretty much the same thing. Similar education, similar technical skills, similar work experience. If you can include something that catches the reviewer’s interest, he or she will be more interested and that might separate you from the pile.

Foreign Languages Enhance Career Options

Fourth, once you are in the company, language skills may enhance your rise through the organization. Many companies have international assignments or chances to travel on business. If you speak the necessary language, you have the inside track on these opportunities.

If you wish to work abroad, it is easier to transfer with your existing company than trying to find work on your own in a foreign land. A big problem involves the need for work permits. With unemployment a major issue in many countries, there is a strong desire to fill open positions with local talent. If you simply arrive in a foreign land and try to find work, it may not be easy. But if you transfer with your company, often it is an easier process.

Fifth, if you do want to work abroad your English skills will not be unique. When I traveled, I was constantly amazed at the language skills of people in many countries. In Switzerland, multiple languages are taught all through school. Swiss involved in international business tend to grow up learning German, French, English, Italian, Swiss-German and Romansch. To be annoying, many that I worked with in Zurich learned Spanish for fun in their spare time. Most European professionals that I dealt with spoke excellent English. Probably better than I do. At least grammatically.

In Singapore, English is the national language. While many speak various Asian languages, their English is also excellent.

In China, according to the US Department of Education, English is a compulsory subject for Chinese primary students. By 2006, over 200 million students in China were enrolled in English classes.

This last bit of information may suggest that you can prosper in the global marketplace with only knowledge of English. In some ways this is true. In many countries, English is the language of business. However, you are not always dealing with professionals when abroad. In Europe or Asia, when dealing with secretaries, store clerks, taxi drivers, and so on, English may not suffice.

Also, there are still many areas of the world where English is not that common. I spent some time recently in Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador. With the exception of Santiago, Chile, English is still not that widespread. And, in the countryside or mountain regions, very few people spoke English. If you work for a company that wants to expand its business into new markets, you cannot rely on people speaking English.

Foreign Languages Facilitate Business

Finally, even if all parties can communicate in English, it is still important to understand the country in order to conduct business. Language greatly aids in understanding a country’s culture. HSBC, the multinational bank, runs advertisements showing how something that is acceptable in one culture is completely inappropriate in another. For example, the same rug may be seen as decor in one culture, a souvenir in another, and a prayer mat in a third. It might not be prudent to walk all over someone’s prayer mat, especially if you wish to do business with them.

In Zurich, a Swedish lady transferred into my department. She began calling me Mr. Wilson. I quickly told her to call me by my first name. As she was used to less formality in Sweden, she appreciated this. However, when she first joined our bank, her Swiss boss made her use his formal name the first six months she worked for him. Part of this was due to the military influence still prevalent in Swiss society. Another part is that until you get to know someone well enough, especially those older or more senior, it is correct form to speak to them using the formal “Sie”, rather than the informal “Du”. In English, there is no differentiation of the word “you”. There is much less formality in English than some other languages. If you understand the German language and cultural aspects of it, even if you are conversing in English, you can respect their culture through your actions and avoid embarrassment.

This is the pure work rationale for learning a second language. While I cannot quantify the return on your investment, I do believe that it will help you land a job or advance within your company over competition who does not have a this skill.  And getting that new job, raise or promotion will definitely earn you more than the additional $3100 (($66,000 end value minus $4000 initial investment) divided by 20 years) per year from investing in a mutual fund or stock.

If that is not enough to have you Googling for language course options, tomorrow I will raise a few other worthwhile issues to consider.

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