Multilingual staff giving organisations a competitive advantage

Written by
Caroline Klein

06 May 2016

06 May 2016 • by Caroline Klein

Branching out

Although many of us tend to view English as the international language of business, strong language skills are increasingly required among employees to give organisations a competitive advantage.

In large parts of Europe and beyond, English is already considered more as a basic skill than a foreign language.  A report by the European Business Forum* found that “although it appears certain that English will keep its leading role as the world business language, it is other languages that will make the difference between mainstream and excellence and provide a competitive edge”.  

Further, research by the CEMS group amongst large multinationals** found that whilst a very high level English was expected for senior management positions in international businesses, for key positions within sales and marketing, multilingualism with fluency and negotiation skills in several languages is generally highly rated.  Multilingualism made it easier to communicate the nuances of a negotiation with clients and suppliers in foreign markets and to process ‘market intelligence’, allowing easier access to new markets.

Where can this lead you?

Learning another language has the added advantage of immersing the student in the culture of that country, and understanding cultural differences is increasingly becoming key to international commercial success. According to OECD figures by 2030 the top six world economies could be China, followed by the United States, India, Japan, Brazil and Russia.  

Organisations wishing to trade with China would be well served to have employees who understand the vital importance of status, and are comfortable with the appropriate titles according to social status, relationship, gender and age. Equally, in India, even close relatives won’t look their higher status relative in the eye. 

Interestingly, countries where English isn’t the native language still fall into the trap of thinking that English, as a second language, will be sufficient to trade internationally. A study in Denmark (where 86% of the population speak English), of 18 companies found that they encountered language barriers in particular in China, France, Germany and Russia. The majority of the respondents felt the source of the problem was the insufficient English of the foreign trade partner!

*Companies work better with languages European Business Forum
** Language needs in business, CEMS