Why Knowing a Foreign Language is So Important in Business

I often hear Americans who have just returned from Europe that “Everyone speaks English! There is no point to learning foreign languages!” I could not disagree more with this statement, particularly for people who are entering the world of business.

I grew up speaking only English. I took Spanish classes during middle school and high school simply because they were required. However, IBS taught me that, despite the high number of English speakers around the world, learning foreign languages is not a waste of time, but almost essential for anyone entering a career in international business. IBS taught me that learning foreign languages helps you get what you want faster and with greater comfort to the non-native English speaker, and it helps you build connections.

Get What You Want Faster

To begin, I learned how learning a foreign language helps you get what you want faster. This summer, after my return from IBS, I worked in a Mexican restaurant in Addison, Illinois. While working there, even though I am certified as a fluent speaker of Spanish, I still found myself baffled in certain situations as to what a cook, waiter, or customer was asking for.

I kept pondering what I had been doing wrong, and then it dawned on me. When people are told that someone speaks their language, they begin talking to them as if they were speaking to another native speaker: quickly, with lots of slang words, and with a heavy accent. The reason why I was slightly confused in certain situations was the same reason that many tourists confuse native German, Italian, and French speakers when they say things like “Hey, buddy, can I get a picture of ya?” rather than “Hello, sir. May I take a photo with you?” While, to a native speaker, the latter sounds so formal, it is the English that Europeans and people around the world are learning, and we need to respect that.

During my experience in Europe, when I asked people if they spoke English (in the language of whatever country we were in), almost everyone said, “a little bit”. Yet, tourists are often blinded by the fact that people who “speak English” in Europe do not speak American English and talk to people in shops or in museums as if they were conferring with another native speaker. This proves two points. One, when speaking to foreigners in English, it is important to speak clearly, slowly, and use words that are easy to understand. On the flip side, learning the language of whatever country one is visiting or working in can help one pick up on subtleties that non-speakers might miss. Even more importantly, rather than having to explain to someone what a “patch for my backpack” is in English in a souvenir shop, one can learn the word for it in French, Italian, or German, and be out of the store in a second.

Making Connections

The other important lesson IBS taught me in regard to foreign languages is that knowing them can help one make important cultural connections with coworkers or executives, helping one stand out from the mass of resumes that the person hiring has to read. Right before our seminar at the Redoro Olive Oil Company in Italy began, I had the chance to speak Italian to a couple of the executives who worked there. While my Italian was obviously not perfect, and I inevitably made a few mistakes, I could tell from the look on their faces that they genuinely appreciated my effort and, if I were working there, would remember that courtesy.

Speaking to someone in their native tongue flatters them. It makes them feel as if their culture is worth learning about. It makes them feel as if their language is not yet a victim of the dominance and universality of English. And, in the business world, it might be the difference between whether the company makes a million-dollar sale. As I mentioned before, it is not expected that you speak the language as well as a native speaker, as this is an almost unreachable goal. It is enough to make an attempt (more than just learning some phrases on the flight) to truly engage oneself in the host country’s culture.

In addition, it makes the native speaker of the language pay much closer attention to what you are saying. If an extra second of attention is the difference between making and not making a sale, the fate of your company’s profits might just lie in your hands. So, even though it is sensible to hire an official translator for business, knowing the language of the country a deal is being done with can be essential in making ties that could turn into partnerships and profits. And, if nothing else, it will certainly make any foreign company view your company and America as a whole in a more positive light.

Mike Yurkiv

School: Northern Illinois University

My favorite place on the seminar was Paris. Paris was everything people told me it would be and more. Despite the short time we were there, I had the chance to connect with French culture intimately.

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