The Importance of Learning a Language in a Global Economy

by Purna Virji

In the modern world, all national economies are part of the global economy. 21st century business networks have become so intertwined, they are reliant upon others to stay afloat. Just look at the current economic crisis in Europe, where the EU is concerned about the economic future of one or two of its countries and how it could impact the continental economy as a whole. In turn, America is concerned about the effect EU failures could have on its own economy.

Were there a universal language in which disparate economies and businesses could communicate without any fear of misunderstanding, things would probably be less of a mess. Of course, one could argue that business itself is a global language – either you understand all those DOWs, FTSEs and HANG SENGs or you don’t – but when it comes to working well with potential partners and clientele overseas, their only one way to ensure communication goes without a hitch: by learning a language.

Statistics suggest that even the slightest adaptation towards multilingualism can have a big impact. According to, 97% of US consumers now search for local businesses online, meaning that businesses that were once only used by a few hundred customers are now advertising to the entire world. It has never been more important to utilize language as a tool for growth.

The website of any big company (think Coca Cola, American Apparel and AT&T) will give visitors the opportunity to choose their language. Yet this shouldn’t be exclusive to multi-billion dollar revenue outfits; smaller businesses should be using multilingualism to broaden their horizons too. After all, every mega-company starts out small. If translation options aren’tavailable on a business’ site, text is left to the mercy of automated services like Google Translate, and all of their associated pitfalls.

China is perhaps the best country for highlighting the importance of learning a language in a global economy. In March 2011, the National Bureau of Statistics stated that China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is 9.5% of the entire world’s GDP. It has risen from fifth place in 2005 to its current position of second, leaving the United States as the only country in the world with a higher GDP. And how does a Western company go about tapping into such a lucrative market? By learning the lingo.

While many Chinese businesspeople will speak English, many others won’t. Of course, interpreters are always available, but can dilute business relationships (just talk to Angela Merkel and François Hollande), so gaining trust from a potential business partner should involve language skills. More favorable outcomes are inevitable when both parties can display knowledge of the other’s language.

It’s also a matter of etiquette. Business deals have been known to collapse entirely thanks to nothing more than minor (and avoidable) cultural misunderstandings. For example, the Mandarin website describes an incident in which a group of local clients were late for a meeting with an American buyer because the latter had given only vague directions to the venue, and they had not wanted to clarify the directions for fear the buyer would lose face. It’s obvious that issues like this can be solved – or might never arise – with better linguistic and cultural understanding.

A recent report in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper states that since 2005, China has established more than 300 Confucius Institutes (non-profit setups aimed to promote Chinese language and culture) in 94 countries. Statistics like this should alert English-speaking businesses that the time to act is now.

China’s growth aside, the world is becoming smaller; online conferencing has taken off in a big way, and international business travel is commonplace. Overseas relocation is also becoming increasingly popular, with the U.S Department of State estimating there are anywhere between three and six million Americans living abroad, and with the economy in its current state these figures are set to rise. Priority for jobs in overseas territories is logically given over to those with the language skills.

It works the other way around too. Over a million legal immigrants are permitted to work in the U.S. each year, with Spanish spoken as a primary language by 37 million in the country. America is slowly but surely becoming a multi-lingual state, and soon English alone won’t be sufficient. Barack Obama has even addressed this, saying: “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English – they'll learn English – you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.” Many English-speaking businesses in English-speaking countries are beginning to utilize a second language in workplaces, in order to source and train foreign-speaking workers, and this trend is set to continue in the future.

Everything points to the fact that learning a second language is a necessary step for success in our global economy. The University of Pittsburgh now encourages its undergraduate business students to take foreign language courses. By 2020, China will have created 1,000 Confucius Institutes. Soon enough, a second language will not just be a useful and important business skill, but a vital one.

And those who begin learning a language today will become the success stories of tomorrow.

This post was written by Purna Virji

Purna Virji possesses a talent for learning new languages with six in her present language-speaking repertoire. She is a former producer for an Emmy-nominated television show with a master’s degree in international journalism. She currently works at Pimsleur Approach, the world leader in the audio-based, language-learning program developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur.

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