Magazine article Communication World

Learning Languages

Magazine article Communication World

Learning Languages

Article excerpt

Such "career opportunities" are presented to management personnel every day in international businesses. And nowhere else are employees more poorly equipped than in English-speaking countries.

More tongues mean more sales

For years English-speaking countries were regarded as the globally dominant force in business because of their preeminence in the marketplace. Financial successes were based almost solely upon the close relationships with former colonies, and upon the high quality of the product or services that were being offered. The nature or quality of the transactions themselves had little regard. However, in today's increasingly competitive marketplace, and with colonial ties loosening, it's easy to see that business dominance slipping. While internationally it is recognized that language is the key to business success, native English speakers are only just beginning to wake up to the world.

Preeminent or merely pushy?

Because many English-speaking companies have tended to view language training as an employee benefit, to be exercised at the option of the individual, most English-speaking professionals lack the basic language skills needed to cultivate successful working relations with foreign colleagues. This lack of language skill routinely excludes them from easy access to new ideas and developments from abroad - ideas that could translate into larger market shares and increased sales.

Rick Sullivan, recently relocated to Tokyo to assume the position of director of brewing operations, Asia, for Anheuser-Busch, recognized the importance of learning about the language and culture of Japan. "Even if I knew I could nail down business contracts using only English, I would still study Japanese, in order to build friendships." Moreover, Sullivan adds, "Even though there are written contracts now, a relatively new concept in Japan, the Japanese still put a lot of stock in personal relationships in trust and the spoken word."

The Japanese are not alone in their regard for relationships. The French view the relationship, which includes several preceding visits, shared culinary delights, and a healthy exchange of non-business ideas, as more important than the actual business. Any attempt to forgo or even rush the former could result in no business at all.

Leonard Lauder, president of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, put the problem into a simple context: "It is self-evident that you can't sell unless there is a demand for the product. It is also self-evident that you cannot begin to understand what a people demand if you can't talk to them on their own terms. Their own terms, of course, means their own language."

U.S. business must let go of the idea that English is the "Language of Business." International trade, to be successful, must speak the language of the consumer, because when you speak to them in English, you speak to their intellect, but when you speak in their native language you speak to their soul.

That realization has been slow in coming. Americans have a lot of image to rebuild if they want to be considered as equals in the international language arena. In France, for example, it is common belief that the American negotiating team rides into town slinging fast talk and American slang in an effort to dominate discussions and win the right to more business territory. The American executive's lack of foreign language skills is often viewed as a deliberate attempt to promote a "superior" culture, rather than the simple oversight it has traditionally been.

Whether it's a plant manager going to work in China, an advertising magnate looking after a multilingual marketing campaign from London, or a salesperson doing rounds in Latin America, more and more companies are finding it good business to make sure their staffs are proficient in the languages of the countries in which they are doing business.

This respect for other cultures and their accompanying languages makes economic sense not only for the employer, but also for the employee as well. …

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