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How comfortable are you with your hallos and holas, your ciaos and chào bạns, or your bonjours and buongiornos? If the answer is not very comfortable, you’re not alone: 75% of British adults can’t speak a foreign language competently and 75% of American adults speak only their native tongue. And English dominates much of the rest of the world. Behind Chinese and Spanish, English is No. 3 in the world with more than 360 million native speakers. English is the official language in at least 59 countries and has become lingua franca in the global business world.
It’s estimated that English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide — that’s one in every four of us.
It may seem like an advantage in the business world if so many people speak your native language. But many argue that any complacency or reluctance to learn additional languages can be a serious disadvantage to the organization and to one’s career in the long run. After all, the benefits of being able to communicate with overseas clients, suppliers, buyers, and colleagues are huge.
Starting in the Fall 2019, all Thunderbird students pursuing a Master of Global Management (MGM) will need to satisfy a second language requirement before they graduate. Thunderbird has offered languages since its early days, but suspended it as a graduation requirement in 2016, while awaiting to design a better way to offer languages.
“Starting in the Fall 2019, all Thunderbird students pursuing a Master of Global Management (MGM) will be required to satisfy a second language requirement before graduation.”– Click to tweet
“All Thunderbird students were, and thankfully will soon be again, required to be proficient at a language other than English prior to graduating,” said alumni Ken Valvur who achieved his Master of International Management in 1988. When Ken arrived at Thunderbird, he expected that he would study French. But the English-speaking Canadian soon decided that Japanese would open more doors for him. Read more about how learning Japanese has helped drive Ken’s career: Sushi, Sake, and the Art of Being an International Entrepreneur.
Peter Deneen, who has worked as a metals trader in and around China for more than 25 years, is happy to have the language requirement reinstated. He is now an executive vice president at EV-Metals Resources Group, holds amaster’s degree in International Management (M.I.M.), and speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently. The ’84 graduate, an American who lives in Hong Kong, played an active role in redesigning Thunderbird’s Chinese curriculum.
In fact, in a random survey of 2,500 Thunderbird alumni from the graduating classes of 1970 through 2002, the vast majority of respondents said both foreign language skills and cultural knowledge had benefited them in their professional lives.
“In a random survey of 2,500 Tbird alumni, respondents said both foreign language skills and cultural knowledge had benefited them in their professional lives.”– Click to tweet
Thunderbird is offering three languages in the fall: Spanish, Chinese, and French. Native speakers of English can satisfy the requirement in a second language in one of three ways:
Thunderbird’s foreign language requirement is rare among many graduate business schools around the globe, whose administrators generally are reluctant to require subjects that are not directly related to business.
One alumni from the survey noted that it might be hard to overrate the benefits of speaking a foreign language and understanding other cultures. “I once gained the trust of a Swedish executive by speaking Spanish with him. He had spent his youth in Argentina and was more comfortable speaking Spanish than English. I had a similar experience with a Japanese exec.”
It is generally believed that language study provides culture knowledge as well as language proficiency. One respondent in the alumni survey made the following comment on the importance of cultural understanding to business: “Cultural understanding, and the enhanced cultural understanding that language studies provide, is vital to success in the international business community.”
Preparing to be a global leader isn’t all about language, but learning a new language does help prepare someone to be open to expanding what Thunderbird professor Dr. Mansour Javidan calls Global Mindset or “being comfortable with being uncomfortable in an environment that’s uncomfortable.”
“Preparing a global business leader isn’t all about language, but learning a new language does help leaders expand their Global Mindset” – Click to tweet
Language is not just about easing communication in the global workplace. Knowing a language other than your native language means understanding a culture, understanding people who are different than yourself.
A 2015 study suggests that children who speak multiple languages are better at understanding other people. Children who are simply exposed to another language (they don’t have to be fluent) display more empathy toward others than children who only know one language. The study joins many others that suggest that there are cognitive advantages to being bilingual. But this experiment is the first to demonstrate that such benefits also accrue to those merely exposed to other languages.
In response to a question about how valuable it is to use their cultural knowledge, one respondent in the alumni survey said, “I have found that language skills are not as important in business unless one is truly fluent in the language. My language skills have never been good enough to negotiate in, but they gave me an understanding of the people I was negotiating with, and even a few words of the language gave the people I was doing business with some comfort that I was interested in them and their way of business.”
Another alumni said: “Though I don’t often use my language skills currently, at work they know I can, and that sets me apart. Actually, it makes me part of the club, because many of us here have knowledge of other languages and cultures.”
Part of the club. Spoken like a true Tbird.