Several years ago, I was in Paris on a business trip. I was staying at a hotel frequented by business travelers and a businessman, English-speaking, approached the reception counter. He wrapped on it impatiently and insisted on doing business only with someone who knew English.
I understood the difficulty of having to struggle with a language that you do not know, but we were in Paris. The staff did not respond favorably to him and observing the situation, I made a mental note at the time that if you're going to manage in an international arena, you should take the time to at least learn some of the local language. I was soon to find out that even if you don't speak the local language fluently, it can make all the difference if you make the effort.
I was spending three weeks working in a French office I had management responsibility for—and only the general manager spoke English. Fortunately, I had minored in French in college. During the three weeks, nothing but French was spoken—but I spoke it well enough to achieve a good working relationship with the staff, when there had been a difficult working relationship in the past. Making the effort to speak the native language was the difference maker.
Unfortunately for many Americans, we have the luxury of knowing that the world's de facto business language is English. We also have an educational system that has been hit by budget cuts that have reduced foreign language education. According to an article from the Pew Research Center, foreign language offerings in U.S. schools are inconsistent at best, while foreign language-learning is mandatory for almost all European students. In a global business arena, this could place American managers (and American companies) at a competitive disadvantage.
Start learning a new language now
If you work for a company that sponsors language education, take advantage of it, especially if your goal is international management. But if your company doesn't offer this benefit, here are some online options for language learning:
Rosetta Stone has an option available on desktop and mobile that's geared toward business users that offers online lessons and live chat. There's also a reporting feature so managers can track of employees' progress. Users can choose from 25 languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Swahili, and Mandarin.
Duolingo is a free mobile app that offers lessons in many European languages. It lets users set goals for how much time they want to practice daily, and awards skill points for lessons completed. The app also appeals to users' competitive sides, challenging them to start a streak of consecutive days of practice and charging a fee if they want to take a day off while still maintaining the streak.
Babbel is a subscription-based app that's been around for almost a decade, offering 14, mostly European, languages. Users can practice at their own pace with short lessons, and choose areas of the language that interests them. There's also a special set of lessons for users who want to learn the language for business purposes.
edX offers courses in languages like Japanese, Mandarin, Italian and Spanish through various universities and institutions. The classes are taught by actual professors and offer lessons in conversational skills, pronunciation, and writing. Classes are free, but for an additional fee, learners can purchase certificates of completion after they finish courses, which take about two to four months.
Busuu offers the ability to connect with fellow language learners around the world to get feedback and practices skills. Language courses include major European tongues, plus Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese. There's a free version of the app, and premium subscriptions run about $5-10 a month.
Encourage your staff to gain foreign language skills
If you are managing staff who works with foreign offices or customers, encourage them to get to know some basic vocabulary in the language and get some study materials for them if it is feasible. They might not ever become U.N translators, but even a few words spoken in a language that others can relate to can build bridges. If your company is international and doesn't have foreign language education options, be an advocate for developing them.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.