Are you embarrassed by your lack of foreign language skills?

by Declan Mulkeen

You come from an English speaking country. You grew up speaking English in your home. You have been working remotely with your colleagues, who are based in Europe, the Middle East, India, Africa and Singapore - in English. At times, it even seems like their English is better than yours. You get into a rhythm of emailing, calling and videoconferencing your virtual team mates. Maybe you learn a little 'Singlish' slang or pick up a few words of Indian English dialect. But your corporate language is English and that's all you ever hear spoken by your colleagues when you work with them remotely.

Then you go on your first business trip abroad and meet your Paris, Madrid, Dubai, Mumbai, Lagos or Singapore based colleagues and you realise that they have a skill that seems completely natural to them that you cannot imagine doing yourself. Your colleagues communicate with one another routinely throughout their day in English - and also in French, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Marathi, Yoruba, Igbo, Tamil, Malay and Mandarin. It all seems effortless to you - for them.

For you, the feeling is one of frustration not being able to make yourself understood in any of these languages - or anyone else's, either. Or perhaps you thought your GCSE French (or Spanish, Mandarin, etc) was up to the job until your colleague got past the pleasantries and asked you a question that you simply did not understand. And now, you're not even sure you remember how to say 'I don't understand you' in the foreign language you struggled with for so long all those years ago. You are embarrassed at your lack of foreign language skills.

As the business world globalises, and as most of the world, including the English speaking world, becomes more multicultural, foreign language skills become more valued. In the work environment, learning a foreign language to a good level of proficiency not only opens up communication channels; speaking another language also helps understand the culture of your work colleagues - and a potentially new market opportunity in which to grow your business. Speaking a foreign language may also help you understand your neighbours and work colleagues at home on a day to day basis as well.

Learning a new language as an adult is not always easy. Linguists recognise that children have a much greater ability to learn new language skills, especially very young children. The older we get, the harder it is, especially for people who don't already speak more than one language. And adults who do learn a foreign language are also much more likely than children to speak their new language with a distinct accent.

However, adults may gain from other advantages that are lost on some children. Some adults value their career progression so highly that they see language learning as simply another business skill to add to their CV. Others may have developed a hobby or other social interest that comes from another culture and have progressed to a level where they want to understand their interest in its original language. Keen travellers often find learning an additional language helpful, especially when going off the beaten path. All of these reasons are likely to motivate an adult language learner more so than their younger selves, when exposure to language learning may have seemed a pointless chore and thus met with limited success.

Finally, the world is not a static place and language is not static, either. In the beginning of the 20th century, French was seen as the language of culture, education and diplomacy. Whilst the French language is certainly not in danger of becoming extinct, its position on the global stage has been surpassed by English in the 21st century, both from a business and from a popular culture point of view.

Biz Shift's November 2012 article International Language Proficiency - Critical Skill for Global Companies: Lack of Language Skills - Kills Business considers many reasons why simply relying on English as a global language does not always make sense, especially when considering that most of the economic growth is coming from the developing world, where many other languages dominate.

As we consider socioeconomic trends expected to develop in the next decades, foreign language skills are going to become more important than ever, including for people whose mother tongue is English. Business executives will do well to consider learning Mandarin - or Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Turkish or any other major language that may end up dominating what is currently considered to be an emerging market. Not only will it enhance business, it will enhance our genuine ability to understand one another - not a bad goal to have as the 21st century progresses.

About the writer

Declan Mulkeen works for Communicaid a business language training consultancy.


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