Being ignorant of other languages in a business environment could backfire Image Credit: Supplied picture

Many native English speakers feel that their language requirements to succeed in international business and intercultural relations are generally fulfilled. However, the demand for additional language capabilities is rapidly changing as new economic superpowers appear and change the landscape of international communications.

Gone are the times when Western companies stepped into developing markets expecting their business counterparts in these countries to readily accept all business conversation in English. Today, global enterprises not only employ a host of interpreters or train their own staff in the local language of their business partner, but also send them to attend intercultural seminars to better understand the mind and context of the other culture with which they are trying to establish a long-term business relationship with.

A while ago, the only language qualification Western expatriates needed to land a decent paying job in Hong Kong, for example, was an acceptable level of English. Today, most job advertisements ask for additional knowledge of Mandarin and/or Putonghua (the official language of the People’s Republic of China).

For jobs in Latin America’s tiger economy Brazil, speaking Portuguese is not ‘desirable’ any more, but a necessity. As for India, the apability to speak standard Hindi can quickly develop into a career booster for expatriates.

Tomorrow’s needs

“Bilingualism or multilingualism is essential for tomorrow’s business environment,” Clair Hattle, Assistant Director, International House Dubai, a part of the International House World language training centres, tells GN Focus.

“For most this means knowledge of English in addition to their mother tongue. [But] this doesn’t mean Brits, Americans and others from English-speaking countries can rest on their laurels. Knowledge and understanding of other cultures is essential for tomorrow’s global business world and language is a crucial part of that,” says Hattle, whose training centres work with UAE companies such as Emirates, du, Al Futtaim, EmiratesNBD and institutions such as the Ministry of Education.

Being ignorant of other languages in a business environment could backfire because it might be interpreted by the other side as a lack of intercultural sensitivity that can lead to misunderstandings, mistrust and in the long run, a stalemate in negotiations and the inability to reach an answer.

“Learning a new language changes your mindset and makes you open to new cultures, ways of working and new experiences,” Hattle says. This applies to new forms of internet communication that are used by global companies to address their regional consumers.

“Businesses seem to be recognising the importance of people, or the human element in what they do. This is also evident in their efforts to connect with consumers online and through social networks. People are becoming more powerful and informed through their new capacity for connectedness,” Hattle adds.

English as a basic asset

What does this mean for non-native English speakers, for example, Arabs who want to climb up the international career ladder? They need to make sure that their capability of communicating in English is at the highest level as English for now remains the basic asset in international communications.

“The majority of international business is still handled in English,” Vanessa Batchelor, Marketing Manager, ELS Language Centres Middle East, tells GN Focus. “That together with the internet and business information being published primarily in English, good skills are essential. People cannot rely on a good level of spoken English, reading and writing skills are necessary as well, together with vocabulary that meets the requirements of the workplace.” ELS, which runs 14 language training centres in the Middle East region, is catering for both local and expatriate communities.

“With more non-native English-speaking expatriates entering the region, the demand for English is high as this is the common language, not purely for business but for general day to day living as well,” Batchelor adds.

So, now the question is whether English will be the ‘lingua franca’ (common working language) in the years to come. English as a native language (spoken by 328 million people) is only the third most widespread native language in the world behind Mandarin Chinese (845 million native speakers) and Spanish (329 million native speakers), closely followed by Hindi-Urdu and Arabic (see box). However, estimates say that the global total number of English speakers (first, second and additional foreign language) reaches up to 1.8 billion.

“With the exponential growth in the internet, online resources and mobile apps, it seems likely that English will continue to be important for the future global career,” says Hattle. “English is also the lingua franca of travel and science to some extent. It is also adaptive, adding more words to the dictionary every year. This flexibility will be important if it is to continue in its position of a key language for the world of work,” she adds.

However, her first two choices for learning an additional language to English are, unsurprisingly, Mandarin and Spanish.

“Of course, China is growing massively day by day with the sheer number of people speaking Mandarin, meaning it would make sense for those developing relations and business ties with the nation to make the effort to learn the language. China is also adding millions of software developers to the internet market. Also in cities like New York, in the USA, Spanish is extremely useful for transactions,” Hattle says.

However, in terms of training, it is essential that any foreign language should be learned to the highest level possible to avoid complications.

“The problem with not striving for a high level of competence in a language is that you can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. If you are lucky, you will not be understood at all because it is far more dangerous to get the wrong message across, especially in the world of business. It is naïve to think that spelling mistakes and inappropriate tone will be accepted by industry partners or professionals,” Hattle adds. So, decide if you need open your mouth to succeed in the international market or just keep it clamped.

The ethnic map of the world in terms of speakers

World languages        
Mandarin Chinese      
845 million
 1.025 billion
329 million
500 million
328 million 
450 million    
1.8 billion*
240 million
 490 million
232 million
452 million
181 million
250 million
178 million
240 million
144 million
250 million
122 million
123 million
109 million
90 million
118 million

  *English as first, second and foreign language spoken, estimates varying widely
Source: Ethnologue