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Foreign Languages in Business

April 9, 2021

Learning a second language has many benefits. Not only does adding a new tongue to your primary language offer a leg up in the business world, but it also improves brain function, empowers you to learn about different cultures, and improves communication skills. 

Four Benefits of Learning Another Language 

  1. Benefit Your Brain – Studies have shown that learning a new language can boost your memory, increase grey-matter volume, protect your brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and create new neural pathways in the brain. 
  2. Become Culturally Aware – In learning another language, you also learn about another culture. Language fluency allows you to immerse yourself in traditions, rituals, art, history, and food. Whether you're doing business in the Arab world, an Asian hub like South Korea or an emerging market in sub-Saharan Africa, a greater understanding of different cultures increases empathy and tolerance – two very important skills in today’s business world. This knowledge contributes to developing and growing your Global Mindset
  3. Improve Communication Skills – Learning a new language improves your cross-cultural communication ability. But did you know that learning a second language also improves overall communication skills and expands vocabulary in your native language? Being bilingual also makes it easier to recognize and learn other languages.  
  4. Accelerate Your Career – Learning a foreign language has tremendous advantages in business. Many organizations are global and need people who can lead and manage across cultures and countries. Bilingual professionals and polyglots (people who speak more than two languages) are highly sought after and are often paid higher salaries. Studies show that bilingual employees are paid 5-20% more than their single-language counterparts. Being bilingual or multilingual opens up more career opportunities and improves your competitiveness in the global job market.

What Are the Best Foreign Languages to Learn for Business? 

The two most commonly spoken languages in the world are English and Mandarin Chinese. After that, there’s Spanish, French and Arabic. Because these are the top languages spoken around the world, any of them are good to learn.  

It is important to consider which region(s) of the world you will be doing business in. If you will be working mainly in China or with Mandarin Chinese speakers, it won’t benefit you to learn Spanish. If you don’t know which parts of the world you’ll be doing business in, here are a few languages most beneficial in opening up a large number of international business opportunities. 

Five of the most important languages to learn for business: 

  1. English – English is often called the language of globalization because of how common and widespread it is. It is the most popular language – spoken by three-quarters of the world’s population. English is spoken in 94 countries and is the official language of 67 countries. Of course, it’s the official language of the United States. Still, it is also an official language in places like Canada, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, India, South Africa, and New Zealand. English is also commonly spoken in many prominent and emerging markets, including China, Russia, Germany, the Middle East, and Central and South America. That's why English is one of the most important business languages to learn.  
  2. Mandarin Chinese – Mandarin is the second-most spoken language globally and the official language of China, the world's most populous nation. Mandarin is mostly spoken in Asian countries, but there is a high population of Mandarin-speaking people in North and South America, Europe, and Africa. There are many different Chinese dialects – Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Jin, for example – but Mandarin is by far the most common.
  3. Spanish – The Spanish language has the third-highest number of native speakers globally, behind Mandarin. Spanish is spoken in some of the fastest-growing regions, including Latin America, Spain, and other parts of the European Union. It’s also very common in the US. Interestingly, about half of the Spanish speakers in the world are non-native speakers. This is most likely due to Spanish-speaking countries' economic growth and the relative ease of learning Spanish. Especially for English speakers, Spanish is one of the easier languages to learn. Rype, a language learning app, rates the difficulty at 3/10 for English speakers.
  4. French – French-speaking business professionals can be found all around the world, making it another important language to learn. French is commonly spoken in some of the world's largest markets, including the European Union, Canada, and many parts of Africa. Like, Spanish, French is also one of the easier languages for English speakers to learn, with a Rype rating of 5/10. 
  5. Arabic – In a report by the British Council, Arabic was listed as the second most important language of the future because of how quickly business in the Middle East is growing. Arabic speakers are in high demand across many sectors, and as the Middle East and Africa continue to boom, Arabic will likely become even more in demand.  

Other useful languages with over 100 million speakers worldwide: 

  • Bengali – The native language of Bangladesh is spoken by more than 265 million people worldwide.
  • Russian – The official language of Russia, Ukraine, and many other former soviet countries is spoken by 258 million people worldwide. 
  • Portuguese – Spoken commonly in Portugal, Brazil, and at least eight other fast-growing countries. There are about 234 million Portuguese-speaking people in the world.
  • Indonesian – More than 199 million people speak the native language of Indonesia across the globe, and native speakers can be found throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
  • German – German-speaking business professionals can be found in Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, and many other countries worldwide. It is the 11th most spoken language with about 132 million speakers. 

Learning a foreign language is not easy. It takes time, energy, patience, and lots and lots of practice. But the benefits that come from the hard work are invaluable. 

Thunderbird has always understood the importance of languages in business and leadership. The School has offered language classes since its early days in the late 1940s. In 2019, we redesigned our language program to better suit the modern world. Today, all of our students must fulfill a second-language requirement to graduate, better preparing them for international business careers.

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