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Learning languages.

Such "career opportunities" are presented to management personnel every day in international businesses. And nowhere else are employees more poorly equipped than in English-speaking countries.

More tongues mean more sales

For years English-speaking countries were regarded as the globally dominant force in business because of their preeminence in the marketplace. Financial successes were based almost solely upon the close relationships with former colonies, and upon the high quality of the product or services that were being offered. The nature or quality of the transactions themselves had little regard. However, in today's increasingly competitive marketplace, and with colonial ties loosening, it's easy to see that business dominance slipping. While internationally it is recognized that language is the key to business success, native English speakers are only just beginning to wake up to the world.

Preeminent or merely pushy?

Because many English-speaking companies have tended to view language training as an employee benefit, to be exercised at the option of the individual, most English-speaking professionals lack the basic language skills needed to cultivate successful working relations with foreign colleagues. This lack of language skill routinely excludes them from easy access to new ideas and developments from abroad - ideas that could translate into larger market shares and increased sales.

Rick Sullivan, recently relocated to Tokyo to assume the position of director of brewing operations, Asia, for Anheuser-Busch, recognized the importance of learning about the language and culture of Japan. "Even if I knew I could nail down business contracts using only English, I would still study Japanese, in order to build friendships." Moreover, Sullivan adds, "Even though there are written contracts now, a relatively new concept in Japan, the Japanese still put a lot of stock in personal relationships in trust and the spoken word."

The Japanese are not alone in their regard for relationships. The French view the relationship, which includes several preceding visits, shared culinary delights, and a healthy exchange of non-business ideas, as more important than the actual business. Any attempt to forgo or even rush the former could result in no business at all.

Leonard Lauder, president of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, put the problem into a simple context: "It is self-evident that you can't sell unless there is a demand for the product. It is also self-evident that you cannot begin to understand what a people demand if you can't talk to them on their own terms. Their own terms, of course, means their own language."

U.S. business must let go of the idea that English is the "Language of Business." International trade, to be successful, must speak the language of the consumer, because when you speak to them in English, you speak to their intellect, but when you speak in their native language you speak to their soul.

That realization has been slow in coming. Americans have a lot of image to rebuild if they want to be considered as equals in the international language arena. In France, for example, it is common belief that the American negotiating team rides into town slinging fast talk and American slang in an effort to dominate discussions and win the right to more business territory. The American executive's lack of foreign language skills is often viewed as a deliberate attempt to promote a "superior" culture, rather than the simple oversight it has traditionally been.

Whether it's a plant manager going to work in China, an advertising magnate looking after a multilingual marketing campaign from London, or a salesperson doing rounds in Latin America, more and more companies are finding it good business to make sure their staffs are proficient in the languages of the countries in which they are doing business.

This respect for other cultures and their accompanying languages makes economic sense not only for the employer, but also for the employee as well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a U.S. college graduate who speaks fluent Japanese can add another U.S. $15,000 to his take-home pay. And the company benefits in having a Japanese-speaking employee to deal with customers from Japan.

But the fact remains that only 10 percent of native English speakers are bilingual (compared to 40 percent of Luxembourg natives who are quadrilingual!) Statistics in the U.S. are even more alarming. The U.S. remains one of the only places on earth where a Ph.D. can be earned without learning a foreign language.

The following excerpt was taken from an Alaska Pacific University survey:

"It has been found that just under four percent of 300 U.S.-based multinational corporations indicated that a foreign language capability was required for international employees."

The American lack is due in large part to the educational system. Statistics show that only five percent of U.S. college graduates are fluent in any language other than English.

The majority of English-speaking companies, it seems, are only just beginning to see the disadvantage this educational system has created, and are now trying to find the most effective way to overcome it.

Within the companies that do provide language training for their executives, as much is spent on private instruction as is spent on a college education - and that language training requires hours of intensive study away from the office. Certainly a more feasible solution to American employees' language needs must exist.

Returning to the case of the plant manager who faces relocation to China in six short months, the offer comes as a mixed blessing. Refusing the post would significantly diminish, or even stifle his career opportunities, but can he find the time and energy to devote to learning this new language and culture in such a short time? Is it really possible to pick up enough language and cultural information to be able to work effectively in China? Is there really any choice? What's the next step?

Jeffrey Norton is a strong advocate of learning foreign languages through self-instruction. Norton, the publisher of Audio Forum, the world's largest producer of foreign language tapes, suggests there are three important factors that separate self-instruction from classroom instruction and make it the best way to learn a language.

Self-instruction provides the building blocks of effective language learning: memorization, repetition and drills. Norton notes, "The purpose of the tapes is not just to speak, but to help you think in the language, which eliminates the need to translate from English into the target language. This way you learn the language in the same manner you learned English: by listening, repeating and memorizing."

Perhaps the most important advantage of audio cassettes in today's fast-paced business world is the flexibility. Self-instruction cassettes particularly appeal to busy executives. The tapes are portable and can be used at their leisure, eliminating the need to tie up valuable hours in the language classroom. Languages can be studied in the car, home, office, airplane or in the foreign country itself upon arrival.

In addition, language specialists have discovered a secondary advantage to audio cassettes as a result of their portability. While they are most often used for active learning and exercises, they also can be used for passive listening, acquainting the listener's ear to the intonation, accent and pronunciation of the language, from a relaxed perspective, without the need for active concentration or participation.

Proficiency can be obtained in as short as two months. Seventeen hours of recorded material and an instructional book round out the typical self-instruction course.

The time saved in learning is remarkable, when considering that an average language class would take a series of eight-hour days, outside of the office, to become proficient.

Language trainers know that some people fear embarrassment in the classroom so much they never progress. Others prefer to take more time memorizing, or more time speaking. With the audio cassette method, language learning seems to allow a less "painful" experience, and maybe even affords a little fun.

For today's cost-conscious manager, it is clear that serving more employees for less is a most attractive alternative. Companies are increasingly opting for the financial and educational benefits of self-instruction and have begun to set up inhouse language facilities, providing more variety and availability of foreign language training to more employees.

American-based 3M, which earns more than $7 billion in annual sales overseas, has long been in the forefront of corporate language instruction, sponsoring an in-house Language Society for the past 27 years.

The Society provides translation and interpretation services for the company's worldwide marketers' business units, offers cultural assistance to employees relocating overseas, and orchestrates lunchtime classes for more than 1,000 employees in 17 languages, using audio tapes as the primary instruction source.

"The society's usage has grown 15 to 20 percent annually as the company becomes more global," according to Arlan Tietel, a manager for 3M's language services.

Other companies, such as the French computer giant, Bull, have followed 3M's lead. Bull has begun cost-effective luncheon discussions and activities in foreign languages (including English!), international news hours, and on-site "mediatheques" full of audiovisual and varied reading materials to prepare employees for doing business in a changing world.

The joke used to be: "What do you call a person who speaks only one language?" The answer was "French." Now, the most logical response would be "a native English speaker."

In an increasingly competitive global economy, the success of international companies based in English-speaking countries will depend in part upon their employees' ability to understand the languages and cultures of the countries in which they do business. Self-instruction, with its extended reach and cost-effective structure, looks to be a practical and cost-effective means for companies to do business as we approach the new millennium.

RELATED ARTICLE: Facts & Fictions about Europeans

While English speakers have their own ethno-centric problems, Europeans are a lot different from what Americans perceive them to be.

Americans perceive them to be . . .

Sophisticated Worldly Negative Articulate Progressive Polite Proud Homogeneous Team players

What they really are . . .

Cultured Fiercely regionalist Introspective Consider conversation to be an art form Have thousands of years of history to learn from Accustomed to a crowded life Very interested in other cultures (particularly U.S.) Europe is experiencing tremendous immigration Family is the most important team, all else is second

John Freivalds heads jfa, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based group that specializes in foreign language products and services.
COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Freivalds, John
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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