I’ve written extensively about the ways good grammar and command of the English language can make or break a business (or a career). But what about your ability to speak another language, in addition to English? Is it mandatory? More importantly, is it worth the investment, in terms of your company’s additional potential for revenue gain?
Benny Lewis, the author of the new book “Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone At Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language From Anywhere In the World,” believes that it is. Lewis is a self-proclaimed polyglot who speaks more than ten languages. He writes the popular language learning blog FluentIn3Months.com. In 2013 he was named National Geographic Traveler of the Year because of his focus on communicating with locals during his travels.
Back to the focus on business, Lewis notes that other countries beyond the U.S. (like Britain for example) have established progressive initiatives to make their workforce more multilingual to improve their economic advantages. Yet the issue goes largely unaddressed in America, he maintains.
The majority of American entrepreneurs view English as the global language and the international language of business. This idea tends to feed the misconception that Americans don’t need to invest time and effort in language learning in their education and business strategies. Because of this (in addition to America’s geographic isolation), America is a shockingly monolingual nation. Only 18% of Americans speak more than one language, versus 56% of Europeans according to research from the European Commission.
This thinking is seriously undermining America’s economic potential, experts believe. The U.S. Committee on Economic Development (CED) suggests that American businesses lose more than $2 billion a year to language or cultural misunderstandings.
To be successful, international businesses (which is pretty much all of us these days, as foreign trade has become a substantial component of the U.S. economy) need to adapt to the needs of foreign clients as well as to communicate with foreign partners effectively.
Consider these statements from the CED:
“For Richard Wagoner, the President and CEO of General Motors, learning Portuguese while on assignment in Brazil increased his eﬀectiveness in working with the Brazilian business community. Douglas Daft, the former chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, spent nearly three decades living in Asia while working for Coca-Cola. He believes the cultural knowledge he gained from his time in the region shaped his ability to lead the company, and considers understanding and valuing other cultures to be an essential skill for anyone working at Coca-Cola.”
Nearly 80% of business leaders surveyed believe their overall business would increase notably if they had more internationally competent employees on staﬀ, the CED concludes. Additionally, one in five U.S. manufacturing jobs was already tied to exports by 2006, the CED maintains.
Foreign consumers, the majority of whom primarily speak languages other than English, represent signiﬁcant business opportunities for American producers, as the United States is home to less than ﬁve percent of the world’s population. Additionally, trade is shifting to diﬀerent parts of the world, the CED notes. The United States’ annual trade with Asia is now approaching $800 billion (as of 2006—the sum is likely even much greater today), significantly out-pacing our trade with Europe. (Note to career seekers: for your job and salary prospects as well, being fluent in a second language is a definite plus.)
Additionally, U.S. markets are facing greater competition from foreign-owned ﬁrms that manufacture their products on U.S. soil.
When it comes to encouraging multilingual skills, the U.K. is ahead of the game. Not only does the country encourage multilingual capabilities, but it even provides research on which languages are the most advantageous for executives to learn.
Late last year, the British Council released the “Languages for the Future“ report that pinpoints which languages will be most critical for building international relationships over the coming years, based on trading opportunities and market growth, as follows: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese.
U.S. entrepreneurs would do well to take note.
For employees, economists are vexed by the computation of how much additional salary they can gain by learning a second language, according to ABC News. Prior Forbes articles report that Spanish is far and away the most popular second language, accounting for 853,000 registrants in 2006 according to the Modern Language Association (MLA). The MLA reports that enrollments in Chinese and Arabic courses spiked by 51% and 127% respectively from 2002–2006, while enrollments in Spanish courses during the same time increased by only 10.3%.
In 2005, economists Albert Saiz at the University of Pennsylvania and Elena Zoido of the consulting group LECG published a study that compared wage premiums for American college graduates who spoke Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Chinese as a second language. In their findings, Spanish was the least valuable addition, bringing only a 1.7% wage premium, followed by French at 2.7%. Knowledge of German, Italian, Russian and Chinese proves slightly more valuable, translating into an average income increase of 4%. (Of course for roles such as regional sales or business lead, fluency in a second language is fundamental for being considered for a localized position at all.)
For immigrants moving into the U.S., however, the difference in salary they gain by learning a second language is massive: Aimee Chin, an associate professor in the economics department at the University of Houston, reports to ABC News that immigrants to the U.S. who transition from speaking English “well” to “very well” can expect to see their wages increase by 30%.
In any event, Lewis’ focus on the benefit to business of multilingual language ability is striking a resonant chord. His book has reached the top 100 sellers list on Amazon U.K., Canada and France (reaching #31 on Amazon.co.uk), and has reached number one in several Amazon categories within the U.S. The book sold out upon arrival in Norway, Lewis reports, and he’s appeared on BBC three times, on Bloomberg, on prime-time Irish TV, on multiple radio programs, and in many newspaper articles within the U.K. U.S. entrepreneurs can also look forward to getting to know Lewis better as his U.S. book tour begins in the summer. Those who would like to connect with Lewis directly can reach him at www.fluentin3months.com.
Additional reporting for this article was provided by writer and editor W. Craig Snapp