Academic journal article
By Walls, Jan W.
Journal of Business Administration , Vol. 21, No. 1-2
1.0 INTRODUCTION: THE ISSUE OF INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS, LANGUAGE AND CROSS-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION COMPETENCE
The Academie Francaise has conservatively estimated a total of 2,796 languages are currently spoken on the planet, excluding an additional 7,000 to 8,000 dialects of those languages, many of which are mutually unintelligible (Victor, 1992, p. 16). I will therefore begin by admitting that it would be unrealistic for any business to aspire to having more than a mere smattering of these languages covered in-house. As a matter of fact, only 101 of those 2,796 languages have over a million speakers, and the top 14 languages ranked by number of speakers have at least 50 million speakers each. Indeed, if we look only at the two most widely spoken languages on earth -- Chinese and English -- we find that one billion Chinese speakers plus half a billion speakers of English as a first (three hundred million) or second (two hundred million) language already cover one third of humanity. It would seem that the law of diminishing returns would argue against the average business person investing time and effort in the learning of any language that is not near the top of the list.
Moreover, few business people are persistent enough, or lucky enough, to become truly fluent in a second language, and conventional wisdom even advises that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." As the highly successful Japan marketing advisor George Fields has pointed out, "The acquisition of superficial language skills can be a handicap if it leads the student to think he understands the culture" (Fields, 1983, p. 17). But the argument "few business people ever become truly fluent in a second language; a little learning is a dangerous thing; therefore the business person's time and effort would be better spent in pursuit of more realistic goals" is too extreme to be generalized.
The argument could be made that, since neither Chinese nor Hindustani (the first and third most widely spoken languages) is likely ever to become the international language of business, English wins by default so why worry if you already speak, read and write English? But the argument has also been made that "regardless of its unquestioned importance, ... English ought not to be considered the only language of world business. Indeed, the very fact that English is the most widely spoken language in commerce represents to its native speakers its most significant handicap" (Victor, 1992, p. 37).
At the level of principle, few academics or employers would deny the usefulness of knowing the language and culture of a host nation, or of a potential client, partner, employee or employer. Yet when it comes to the type of skills considered most important when hiring, "language ability, as a criterion for selection of personnel for overseas assignments, is scarcely considered by |U.S.~ companies doing business internationally" (Inman 1978, p. 1). Much has been written in recent years about the importance of language and cross-cultural competence in the globalizing marketplace, yet the business world in general still considers language ability as a secondary requirement for employment. In the words of one recent graduate in international business: "The foreign language-international trade major should not underestimate the importance of the business part of the curriculum, because it will probably be on the front end of the job placement; language application will come later" (Sullivan, 1987, p. 194). "Students who have taken a course in French, German, or Japanese for business will probably find a future employer more interested in their knowledge of business than in their foreign-language proficiency, even when work with non-English-speakers is involved" (Rivers, 1992, p. 94). A survey of "The Foreign Language Needs of U.S.-Based Corporations" found that "while cross-cultural understanding was frequently viewed as important for doing business in a global economy, foreign language skills rarely were considered an essential part of this" (Fixman, 1990, p. …