In what language does business speak?
By Kenneth Reeds
In a recent edition of Lingua Franca, the Dean of the Bertolon School of Business spoke about language learning and the business world. A fluent speaker of French and English, K. Brewer Doran recognized the importance of language acquisition, stating that she feels “everyone should learn a second language”. However, at the same time she also pointed out that, in her opinion, learning a new language is “not necessary in today’s business world”. While perhaps seeming at least partially contradictory, these two statements also reflect a large amount of truth.
English is indeed the language of international business. A recent Ipsos poll of employees in 26 countries whose jobs require them to speak to people in other parts of the world reported that two-thirds said that English is the language that they use most often. Quoting the CEO of Ipsos, Darrell Bricker, a Reuters article concluded that “[t]he most revealing aspect of this survey is how English has emerged as the default language for business around the world”. The Harvard Business Review agrees with this conclusion, declaring in an article that “Ready or not, English is now the global language of business”. This idea moved a while ago from opinion and observation into action as business schools around the world began imparting classes in English in the early 1990s. The New York Times reports that “[i]n the last five years, the world’s top business schools and universities have been pushing to make English the teaching tongue”. This means that regardless of their first language, students are learning to speak business in English. Or, examined from another perspective and echoing the dean’s words, those people who are born native English speakers start with an advantage in today’s international business world.
So, the question then becomes, if you’re born an English speaker and you want to enter business, is it worth your time to study a new language? Many people study business with the goal of earning money. With this in mind, The Guardian pointed out that the simple fact is that “a language can add between 10% and 15% to your wage”. Beyond the increased salary, we are discussing a competitive place where landing a job or attaining a seat in a well-regarded MBA program are difficult tasks. The Modern Language Association emphasized language-learning’s potential contribution to providing a candidate with the needed edge: “Competition for the best jobs and for admission to top-rated graduate and professional schools is intense. Directly and indirectly the study of languages and their cultures and literatures will provide you with important job-related knowledge and skills that can give you a competitive edge”. Of course it is also important not to forget that 75% of the world does not speak English. Language acquisition reduces the number of people a businessperson cannot communicate with directly while also honing cross-cultural and communicative skills that the dean seemed to suggest were important.
Imagine competing for a job with a recent MBA graduate from the École Normale Supérieure. He or she will have a graduate degree that was conducted in English. However, thanks to the place where this graduate was born, he or she will also speak French. Competitively, this is an enormous benefit. English is indeed the language of business and this gives US-born students an advantage; however this quickly turns into a disadvantage if it removes motivation to learn a new language. Language acquisition provides cross-cultural, interpersonal, analytical, and communicative skills that can be essential to success in business. Beyond this, multilingual business people are more likely to be hired and will earn more money.
Do you want to be just another person with an international business degree or MBA? Why not make yourself unique by adding another language and studying in another country?