The Best International Languages to Learn for Business
From "hola" to "au revoir," learning a foreign language can help corporate employees — especially those who travel internationally — succeed in their jobs and achieve their goals.
Studies show that people who can speak a second language make 10 to 15 percent more in salary than those who don't. Being bilingual can also help you be more effective in your career as a globetrotting business person. Being able to talk with people in their language will impress clients and make it easier to communicate. It's also a sign of respect that is sure to give you a leg up on the competition.
Of course, the best foreign language to learn varies from person to person. If your work takes you to France a lot, then French is the language to learn. That aside, here are the top 10 languages to learn that can help you improve communications and relations with international contacts.
- Mandarin Chinese
There are lots of reasons to learn Mandarin Chinese. First, over 1.2 billion people speak it. Second, in addition to China, it's among the most common languages in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, all of which are growing as economic forces.
Second, despite China’s troublesome stock market, the country remains a global force in manufacturing, and countries throughout the world have investments there. Anyone working in international business and manufacturing would greatly benefit from learning Mandarin Chinese. Chances are that any global company you work for has some dealings with the country. Another factor to consider is that relatively few people in China speak English.
About 20 countries are Spanish-speaking, including many in South America, where many companies are discovering opportunities for business growth because of factors including its proximity to the United States, natural resources and a growing economy. Spanish-speaking countries include Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
There’s also Mexico, which is drawing investors with its free market economy and increasing trade with the United States. Speaking Spanish also can help improve your business within the U.S., as it the second-most language spoken there.
As the official language of many Middle Eastern countries where business opportunities are growing, learning to speak Arabic can be a big plus.
Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, which has the strongest economy in the Middle East. While some have predicted that lower oil prices could hurt Saudi Arabia’s economy, that hasn’t been the case so far. In fact, U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia totaled $19 billion in 2015, a record high.
Other key countries where Arabic is spoken include Jordan, a wealthy nation in the Middle East that has a free-trade agreement with the United States, and Israel, which has two official languages: Arabic and Hebrew.
Opportunities for investments in business and real estate abound, and many of those wealthy Russian people do not speak English. Russian also is the official language such countries as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Krygystan, and Tajikstan. It’s also a common second language in several countries, including Armenia, Bulgaria, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Japan is one of the biggest purchasers of American products, and is a dominant player in the technology industry. The country is at the forefront of robotics, employing more than 250,000 people in the industry, which some people think could have huge influences on business and society.
Japan also invests in countries around the world, and has a strong economy with 3.1 percent unemployment, and solid GDP growth.
This language is similar to Spanish, if not as commonly spoken. It is the language of Brazil, with its population of more than 200 million. The country is growing in population, 62 percent of its residents are 29 or younger, and it’s growing in wealth.
The world will be watching Brazil during the upcoming Summer Olympics. Anyone interested in creating connections with a large, young population with many business professionals will do themself a favor by learning Portuguese, which also is spoken in Portugal, Angola, Macau, and other countries.
French is an official language in various countries in Europe (France, of course, but also Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg), Africa (Cameroon, Mali, Madagascar and many others), and North America (Canada).
French was the common “international language” for business and diplomacy for many years, and it remains the official language of the United Nations, NATA, the World Trade Organization, and the International Olympic Committee. While English has emerged as a more common language, many companies around the world do business in French.
Business relations between the United States and India has grown over the past 30 years, with the two countries trading $1 billion in goods and services on an annual basis, up from $100 million in 1985.
Different languages are spoken in the country’s different regions. You’ll likely speak English when talking with contacts from India, but learning Hindi, which is the most common first language in the country and a common second language, could be a big advantage when doing business in India.
Germany has one of the biggest, strongest and most stable economies in the European Union. German is the most widely spoken language in Europe, with 16 percent of Europeans naming German as their first language.
Germany is one of the world’s top three exporters (behind the U.S. and China), most notably in automobiles, machinery and chemical products. It also appears primed for the future, as it is a leader in green energy advances, and its laws allow foreign investors to establish and invest in its companies.
The second-most popular language in India, Bengali is spoken in the Bengal region, which includes Bangladesh, West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. About 250 million speak it in India, with about 300 million speaking it throughout the world.
Knowing Bengali can help improve business relations in a key region of India, which is a growing market for goods and services. With a growing middle class comes a growing need for consumer goods and infrastructure, creating a variety of business opportunities.
4 Ways to Learn an International Language
There are plenty of resources for people interested in learning a second language. Languages such as Spanish, French, and German essentially use the same alphabet as English, which makes them fairly easy to learn. Languages like Mandarin Chinese and Arabic use different alphabets than English, which is an additional challenge to learning a new vocabulary and grammar.
- DuoLingo (www.duolingo.com) is a free website where people can study such languages as Spanish, French, German and others. It’s user-friendly and easy to follow. Users can starts at the very beginning of their studies, or take a placement test, so that they don’t go over material they already know.
- Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com) is the best-known online language learning system, with learning platforms for business, the public sector and higher education. There is a cost structure, ranging from $239 for a six-month subscription to $400 for a 24-month subscription. Rosetta Stone offers courses in languages that other platforms don’t, including Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi.
- Fluent in 3 Months (www.fluentin3months.com) is a learning platform designed by Benny Lewis, the self-described “Irish polyglot”. The website has a free “Speak Your Language in a Week” email course, and a blog with tips to help people improve their foreign language skills. There also is a premium level with additional lessons, a video course, and other resources for a one-time payment of $197.
Lewis wanted to learn Spanish when he lived there, but struggled with conventional learning methods. He now speaks seven languages, has written a book, titled “Fluent in 3 Months.” His website promises the ability to not only speak a language, but for people to immerse themselves in cultures, have the confidence to start conversations in their new language, and to succeed in the workplace in a foreign country.
- In-person lessons - Some people prefer in-person lessons, because it allows them to ask teachers specific questions. A classroom setting also allows people to form study groups so that students can help each other. Your local community college is sure to offer courses in foreign languages. Other options include learning centers, community centers, and cultural groups.
Learning a language is just one way for international business travelers to become more worldly. Be sure to read our top tips on international business customs.
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