As business becomes increasingly global, many argue it is important for job candidates to learn a second or third language; others disagree, asking why native English speakers should bother to learn other tongues when English is the dominant global language of business.
Andy Dallas, a director at Robert Half Financial Services, is more inclined to agree with the latter view: “Globally, financial services continues to be an English-dominated industry, with many of the international financial centres of Asia and Europe adapting their practices to work in English. In the UK, there isn’t great demand for foreign language skills, which are often seen as an asset rather than a requirement for potential hires.”
Many in financial recruitment concur. Jane Kirk, a partner at Armstrong Craven, the executive search firm, says she has not seen any increased demand for language skills because “English remains the main business language in the global market”.
Backing her up is a British Chambers of Commerce survey of more than 8,000 businesses that found in the first quarter of this year that 96 per cent had no foreign language ability for the markets they served.
However, some believe the UK’s mono-lingual tendencies are a concern, both for the competitiveness of British business and for career prospects within multinational organisations.
Adam Marshall, director of policy at the BCC, is one of them: “I think one of the lessons we’ve learned from the history of international trade is that complacency breeds decline. If you have a business community that is so assured of its inalienable right to trade into a certain market, you can rest assured that a competitor will come along, whether from their own country or another, and try and steal that market away from them with a better-tailored product.
“Language learning is of huge importance to future prospects, particularly in those markets where English is less spoken and less used in the regulatory and governmental environment.”
Recruiting candidates with language skills, might also help to avoid some of the costly and well-known translation errors, such as Chevrolet launching its Nova car in South America despite “No va” meaning “Doesn’t go” in Spanish.
“Such mistakes can be simple and banal, or cause serious cross-cultural offence,” argues Mr Marshall. “So it is incredibly important for senior executives to be culturally sensitive and where possible to have some sort of language knowledge, which goes for various levels throughout a business.”
If a company deals with a key non-English speaking market, then hiring employees with knowledge of that language is useful and helps with understanding the needs of that market. “With language learning comes cultural understanding,” argues Mr Marshall, “and cultural understanding can lead to business deals.”
Ms Kirk agrees that language can demonstrate a good understanding of business culture, which can be vital when recruiting for certain positions.
Brazil is a good example of a current growth market where language skills are valued. “Language barriers have presented issues for many exporters to Brazil,” says Mr Marshall. “What many people tell us is that it’s not a problem speaking to the businesses they deal with, but it is a problem when dealing with the state agencies.” Ms Kirk also finds that in Brazil “there is a deep preference to do business with a Brazilian, so non-nationals should speak Portuguese”.
But even in well established markets, such as Japan and China, English speakers are not as common as some might assume. Tony Vardy, managing director of Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, the executive search and leadership consultancy, identifies foreign language skills as being more advantageous in parts of the world where English tends not to be the second language of choice. A Brazilian businessman, surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, is more likely to learn Spanish than English.
“As emerging markets have developed much more quickly than most of Europe and the US in recent years,” says Mr Vardy, “companies and senior executives increasingly have a broader international outlook and languages not widely spoken in the west are therefore becoming more important.
“The ability to speak languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Portuguese has increased in value and will continue to do so.”
Even if a role does not require any language proficiency, employers often view knowledge of foreign languages as evidence of a wider willingness to learn and adapt, says Mr Vardy: “This is often as valuable to employers as fluency in a specific language.
“While not always requested in the position specification or candidate profile, senior hiring executives look favourably upon foreign language skills, and we expect their importance to increase as time goes on.”
Mr Dallas says roles in finance that rate language skills highly when recruiting can include front office and trader roles. He says: “These may find additional benefit, especially if they work for a foreign institution. There have been a few cases of foreign companies moving their headquarters to London, and this has also prompted the need for individuals with foreign language skills for these companies specifically.”
Mr Vardy highlights demand for executives with “a hands-on role managing employees, or selling products and services to consumers, who speak a different language”.
The expatriate placement is the most obvious area where language skills are beneficial. Mr Dallas believes those looking into international opportunities “should look to enhance their foreign language skills, particularly Arabic and Asian languages where much of the growth lies.
“Not only will it give you a competitive advantage during the selection process, it will allow you to adjust more quickly both to your professional and personal environments. For senior managers, it also demonstrates to future employees that you are invested in the organisation and business community.”
The conventional wisdom remains, however, that simply speaking English is enough, for now. It is becoming more commonly spoken in all business markets, and is unlikely to be toppled as the international language of business for the foreseeable future.
This, however, is a double-edged sword: as more markets become fluent in English, the more competition native English-speakers will face. On top of that, the multinational understanding of these changing markets will help them access other markets that might remain closed to mono-lingual British businesses.
“We are lucky, we do have a natural advantage in the English language which is the world’s commercial language,” says Mr Marshall. “But simply having the world’s commercial language does not mean we have a lock on the business.
“I think executives in business in the UK are very complacent about this issue. Those that are more forward looking will be taking steps to ensure they have the talent required on their staff. When winning business abroad on the strength of a product, in a highly competitive environment, small things can make the difference.”
Being multilingual will always be an advantage, says Mr Dallas.And while Mr Vardy concedes that most native English-speaking executives have so far managed to get by successfully without foreign language skills, he adds that “as businesses increasingly operate in a more sophisticated global marketplace, single-language leaders may become an endangered species”.