Do Small Businesses Need to be Multilingual?

The U.S. continues to lead talks on expanding free trade with Europe and parts of the Pacific with the aim of increasing exports to those regions. But before American small businesses can capitalize and begin offering their products and services overseas, they could hit a well-known hurdle: language barriers.

Language services are a $20 billion industry, according to Hans Fenstermacher, CEO of The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA). These services, which he says are offered largely to small and mid-sized companies, support approximately $1.5 trillion in exports. This causes some to speculate that improving foreign language skills among American businesses could boost exports and narrow the trade gap.

The benefits of knowing more than one language are well-attested. Anton­ella Sorace, an Italian-born University of Edinburgh professor of developmental linguistics, recently noted in the Financial Times that speaking another language is good for business and the brain. "Hire more multilingual employees, because these employees can communicate better, have better intercultural sensitivity, are better at cooperating, negotiating, compromising. But they can also think more efficiently," he said.

Research from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages concludes that "globalization is driving the demand for a U.S. workforce that possesses knowledge of other countries and cultures and is competent in languages other than English... Most of the growth potential for U.S. businesses lies in overseas markets [while] our own markets are facing greater competition from foreign-owned firms, many of which manufacture products on U.S. soil."

As globalization makes the world seem smaller, more American companies are realizing they have to expand internationally or lose out to those that will.

Fenstermacher told IMT that as businesses' supply chains and customers become increasingly global, "the issue of language becomes more prominent. Multilingual personnel can interact more nimbly with all parts of the business and have a better sense of when and how to use professional language capabilities to meet the business's goals."

"The ability to work across cultures is no longer a nice-to-have skill set for elite executives; every year it becomes more essential to finding any job at all," especially for small and mid-size businesses, Stacie Berdan, an international careers expert and award-winning author, told IMT.

"A machine operator at a plant in Topeka that exports widgets to Mumbai needs to know how to interact effectively when Indian customers visit," she offered as an example. "A farmer in western Pennsylvania can open up potentially rich new revenue streams by understanding exactly what qualities in American ginseng will appeal to the Korean market."

Much of the business benefit in learning a foreign language comes from cultural appreciation and understanding that accompanies the language capability. In addition to being able to communicate, bilingual people have what Berdan called one of "the most important professional skills for global workers today -- cross-cultural aptitude, [which is] the ability to appreciate different cultures and solve problems while operating in an environment different from what you're used to."

Manufacturers need language skills as much as anybody. Gabriella White, product manager for Innovative Language Learning, a Tokyo-based online business language education company, told IMT that manufacturers, "especially in the technology industries, need to communicate with one another. The importance of [cultivating] business relationships through clear, fluent communication is often underestimated."

White echoed Berdan's observation that what could be costing exclusively Anglophonic American companies overseas business might not be simply the lack of language, but the lack of employees with the sort of cross-cultural appreciation that comes with learning a language. She said learning the native tongue demonstrates "courtesy and respect to the foreign country [with] which you are working. This is especially important in places such as Japan."

But many find that American foreign language education leaves students woefully unprepared to use these skills in foreign cultures. "Historically our language classes in the U.S. have served to prepare students to fulfill language requirements or admissions standards," Martha G. Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, told IMT. "There was little attention paid to preparing students to actually use the language to communicate."

This is starting to change. These days, Abbott said, given increased globalization, technological advances, and widespread use of the Internet, "there is much more interest in developing students' ability to interact with native speakers. Our national standards in languages for K-16 emphasize developing students' linguistic and cultural competence and the ability to use the language beyond the classroom walls."

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