The Language of Business

The Language of Business article image
Recent estimates put the number of native English speakers in the world at about 375 million, while a staggering 1.125 billion people globally speak English either as a second or foreign language. In the English-speaking world, though, a comparable ability with foreign languages is rare. In Australia, this disparity has been repeatedly highlighted in recent years by the widespread amazement whenever foreign minister and former prime minister Kevin Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin while addressing Chinese officials. However, Australians seem unsurprised by other world leaders who converse coherently in languages not their own. As business becomes increasingly international, a question emerges: Is the English-speaking world in danger of being left behind in the language stakes? "It's not that English speakers are worse at acquiring other languages," says Chihiro Kinoshita Thomson, a professor of Japanese Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of New South Wales. "It's just they don't have the same need to acquire other languages because so many people across the world speak English as a second or foreign language." However, Thomson fears the perception that "you can get by with just English" when doing business overseas is very limiting - both now and in the future, and on a variety of levels. Internet usage is just one reason why. The US has the world's largest Internet usage, but the second and third highest users are Japan and China. "If an English speaker learned written Japanese or Chinese to an advanced professional level, they would open up a vast number of professional opportunities for themselves. With English only, your access to information is limited," indicates Thomson. On a more fundamental level, she notes that business develops through relationships, and those who don't speak the language are excluded from those relationships. "You can penetrate into a culture with English only - but only so far. While English is widely spoken in larger companies overseas, this is less the case with medium and small-sized companies. Importantly, without the language, it can be difficult to develop an understanding of another society. Your understanding is going to be given to you by someone else." Thomson notes that between 2006 and 2009, the number of students learning Japanese in primary and secondary school in Australia reduced by 25%. The same period, however, saw an increase in the teaching of Asian languages at tertiary level. "At university, people choose to study a language," says Thomson. "At school, though, it's determined by budgets and government policy. Developing professional-level Asian languages takes years, and really should start in primary school," she argues. NSW high school students are required to undertake only 100 hours of language classes between years 7 to 10. By contrast, when Thomson was studying English in Japan, English was a required subject for all in years 7-12, and at tertiary level it was mandatory for her to study two other foreign languages. While Asian languages are thriving at university level, in Thomson's experience this fact conceals a very revealing truth. One-third of her Japanese language students are from overseas, many of them students from Asia learning Japanese as a third or further language. "You could say we're already teaching the converted." Thomson also teaches beginner Japanese classes, which students can take as 'general education'. These are unrelated to a student's major, and she has 550 students doing the class this year, of which the majority are general education students or those taking the language as an option. "Many quit after one semester, but it's better than nothing! This level of language skills would be appreciated by business colleagues abroad, but it wouldn't go very far," Thomson points out. People Skills Rule "To do business abroad, another language may be a necessary skill," says Tim Harcourt, chief economist with the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade). "But it is never a sufficient skill, and in many cases it's not even necessary." For anyone wanting to be successful in business overseas, there are a number of attributes that are more important than learning the language of the country in question, according to Harcourt. Among these he lists interpersonal skills, cross-cultural skills and emotional intelligence. "I know English people who are fluent in Mandarin, but they're not very good with people. I also know people who don't understand the language, but who are very 'China literate'. And you can replace China here with Japan, Korea or Brazil." Even without language skills, Harcourt believes Australian managers have an advantage abroad, because they come with none of the baggage that might be associated with managers hailing from a colonising or regionally dominant country. In his experience, for example, Peruvians prefer Australian managers to those from Spain or the US, and similarly Mongolians prefer Australian managers to those from Russia or China. The cross-cultural skills that Harcourt considers important are something that Australian managers learn at home, and which flow naturally out of the multicultural nation that Australia has become. "An Australian manager of a mine site or construction site [in Australia] would typically have managed people from the UK, Vietnam, Middle East, Pacific Islands, even Africa," Harcourt notes. Is lack of language skills a problem outside of business hours given social contact can be integral to the success of many business ventures? "If I was going somewhere for five years, I'd learn the language," says Harcourt. "If nothing else, it's polite. But I've been to 56 countries in the last five years, and organised a lot of social contact. Language has never been a barrier to that." Harcourt insists he's not downplaying the importance of languages, or discouraging people from learning them. "Languages are good, but there are other skills you need, and businesses should be wary of hiring people on language abilities alone." Exporting Talent Australian car manufacturer GM Holden, as part of the global General Motors family, provides international service personnel, or ISPs, to other GM partners requiring specific skills around the world. "In a recent example, we sent a creative designer to Shanghai to help with a joint venture," says Joanne Sims, one of GM Holden's human resources business partners. "Australian design skills in particular are well regarded internationally, but an ISP could come from any background." The selection process for ISPs is conducted internationally, and includes an interview with the "host unit", which makes the final decision. Holden currently has 38 ISPs on assignment for an average two to three years around GM, out of a total Australian workforce of 4555. With GM operating across territories as varied as China, Thailand, Russia, the Middle East and Korea, language training for ISPs is often a necessity. As Sims notes, "language skills would be a great bonus, but generally people don't have the appropriate language skills for where they're going". When a candidate is selected to become an ISP, Holden engages a third party provider with the necessary expertise of the host country, who deals with everything related to the candidate's placement - including relocation, medicals, and cultural and language training. Language training is provided for both the ISP and their spouse or partner, with typically 80 to 160 hours prior to moving, backed by online training in the host country. Despite their language training, ISPs are not expected to work entirely in the new language, as many of their colleagues, and especially heads of departments, are fluent English speakers. How might things be different if ISPs began this process with better language skills? "If there were two candidates with similar skills, but one had better language skills, it wouldn't be the deciding factor [in selecting a candidate]," says Sims. "But it would certainly be attractive to the host provider." Lost in Translation Gavin Isaacs, CEO of Las Vegas-based Shuffle Master, a leading supplier of automatic card shufflers and proprietary table games to the gaming industry, has successfully opened businesses in Japan, Russia, Mexico, China and India. The former Sydney lawyer, a graduate of UNSW, admits his language skills are still limited to "a little French, and a little Spanish". While he has managed to conduct business in many countries in English, he provides a vivid picture of two days spent negotiating contracts for manufacturing and R&D in Japan, all done via a translator. "They were all talking away in Japanese for five minutes, after which the translator said to me, 'will you do... (something)?' I would say, 'yes' - or 'no' - after which they would talk for another five minutes, then come back to me and say, 'OK'. I had no idea what they were saying amongst themselves, and importantly had no idea whose side the translator was on." In other countries, such as Italy, Isaacs found that business could be conducted in English, but that the people he was in discussions with would frequently hold "sidebars" in Italian, from which he was excluded. "Obviously you think negative thoughts, as you have no real idea of what they are saying," he notes. As for the social side of business, away from the negotiating table, Isaacs has always taken a full part in this, whether or not it was conducted primarily in English. "You're not exactly excluded from the social side of things by not speaking the language, but it's not an entirely comfortable feeling either. Don't underestimate how important the relationship side of business is, and speaking the local language can only help." A colleague in Isaacs' previous company ran the Latin American region for Isaacs, and despite being a native Bostonian, spoke fluent Spanish. On business trips to the region with the colleague, Isaacs saw firsthand the advantages of foreign language skills. "Relationships were built quicker, and sidebars disappeared, as they knew he could understand what was being said." Is there a danger of Australians being left behind in the acquisition of languages? "The Sydney of today is very different from the one that I grew up in," says Isaacs. "I had many friends whose parents had European backgrounds, but nowadays kids have friends from Asian backgrounds as well. If I was in Australia now, I would absolutely have my son and daughter learning Mandarin." Ultimately, learning other languages is about more that business, concludes Thomson. "We need to become better people, and understand different values and cultures. Australia needs to produce world citizens, who can contribute internationally and locally. You can't do that if you only speak one language. By learning another language you are exposed to another value system, and your critical thinking skills will develop." This was first posted on UNSW's Knowledge@Australian School of Business website.


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