global biz

If We’re All ‘Global’ Businesses, Should We Learn Other Languages? Leaders Know Best

The more people move around, the better it is to learn a second, if not a third language. Why? We’re all going to find ourselves working globally–if not working with global talents, whether as a global mobility manager, expat or startup founder.

It’s a given global mobility managers should know other languages and cultures, but what about expats or entrepreneurs? Should someone from India level up to learn Mandarin or German, and add them to their skill set, along with American English and their native Hindi?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Bear in mind that assignees do have a lot of adjusting to do during their first few months in their new working environment. They have to immerse themselves in the corporate environment, create a new set of friends and acquaintances, and soak themselves in the culture of their neighborhood. Squeezing in another language class on top of everything else can add to the pressure.

The honest answer is:  no, assignees do not “have” to acquire a third or fourth language, but it doesn’t hurt to learn another one. Global mobility managers can help facilitate this and it does not have to take overnight. Perhaps they can encourage the assignee to take an online program a year after they have gotten their bearings in the company and feel confident enough to take on another challenge.

But why even bother to learn a third language when everyone speaks English? Assignees who are serious about their work will always be mobile — and in some countries, you have to understand the culture as well.  The better they are at their job, the more they will be selected to take on leadership roles in other locations. Most of their locations will be in other countries — and those new assignments do not necessarily reflect a return to their motherland.

In Silicon Valley, expats may also find themselves transitioning from assignee to startup founder and down the road, reaching out to foreign markets. Then it becomes even more important to learn another language. For companies with a global audience — and who doesn’t — a website that translates to other languages is crucial. Not many know it, but a website with an option for the reader to read its content in, say, Mandarin can increase their site traffic dramatically.

Dynamic emerging economies with immense business potential and an expanding market will always attract U.S. companies who want to grow globally. The Telegraph names the languages often spoken in these economies: Mandarin (as hinted above), French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. China itself is the economic powerhouse to do business with in the 21st century. Countries which had been former European colonies are now coming into their own economically and are building their industrial landscapes.

It is a situation replete with opportunities — but the challenge lies in gaining the trust of the natives in those countries. Again, language plays an important key. Assignees who are versed in these languages and who had honed their expertise globally can play a powerful role in creating business beachheads for the main company in those countries.

Assignees should seize the moment and put learning foreign languages in their career development plan. Global mobility managers should be the first to encourage them. Because if there are two foreign candidates who are equal when it comes to their technical competencies, educational background, and years of experience, the one who can speak and write another language the way like a native just might get the job offer. Their integration into his new company and new country of employment would be easier. The usual social tensions that happen when an outsider enters a group are also dissipated if the latter can bridge the communication gap.

Global mobility managers would do well to brush up on their foreign language skills as well. But for non-American expats or global mobility managers in the US, it’s important to speak English — on a business level. Being fluent in the dialogue is not enough, one must know how to present thyself.