More languages, more business

For language skills, demand and supply are equally on the rise. As corporations cross borders by default, they need their leaders to understand new customers and workers and cultures. In a recent Forbes survey, half of the 200 companies admitted they needed at least a quarter of employees knowing another language compared to the current 10%.

A good leader sets the standards in this respect, too. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to speak Mandarin is definitely such an example. Starting out to impress the Chinese family of his now-wife, Priscilla Chan, in only four years he managed to awe a university audience, participating in a talk in Mandarin. Many say this is just another way to improve his reputation in a country he wants to win business-wise. But his respect and commitment to the culture did get some of the 1.3 million native speakers to his side.

The founder of media company Bloomberg, also former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, tackled the foreign language most important for US businessmen. Although his accent is often made fun of, the fact that he can conduct speeches in Spanish has won him the Hispanic community in politics and helped him to important business opportunities, such as the alliance in Mexico with El Financiero.

Maybe a lesser-known name is that of Joseph Rank who was appointed CEO of the Saudi operations of Lockheed Martin. His example proves how language skills and the openness to other cultures it implies can sky-rocket a career. Rank speaks Arabic, a language of 400 million people, and is expected to nurture strategic partnerships on a market where foreigners rarely speak other than English.

Globalization also means more and more people are raised in multiple languages and are not afraid to move around the world for work. According to US statistics from 2016, there were 12 million bilingual kids representing 22% of the total underage population, and 3% of all American children were foreign-born. Many of those children will have the chance to follow the footsteps of prominent business leaders.

Born in India and have Tamil (of over 70 million speakers) as her mother tongue, Indra Nooyi immediately had a competitive advantage when relocating to the US and accepting a senior role at Pepsico. From 2006-2018 when she held the position of CEO, Pepsico increased its revenues by 80%, and Nooyi herself consistently ranked among the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Meanwhile, Jan Koum possesses the seventh most spoken languages of the world, Russian, being born in Ukraine and only immigrated to the US at the age of 16. He made a fortune by funding WhatsApp, a global product translated to many languages, and then selling it to Facebook for in 2014. Koum still speaks fluent Russian and claimed in a 2016 interview that Russia was their most important market with 25 million monthly active users out of the 900 million total.

So if you are lucky enough to have English as your first language, you might reconsider if speaking multiple languages is just a nice-to-have. And, if you come from a different background, it’s time you realized the huge business advantages of your multilingualism.


Written by Anikó Jóri-Molnár

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