The importance of language skills for business

Whether you head up a team of executives or you’re a business owner, working on your language skills is always a good way to create opportunities and learn. Even if you are a citizen of one of the 59 sovereign states and 27 non-sovereign entities that list English as their official language, you can’t assume that you speak a universally understood language.

Failing to grasp the importance of learning languages could lead to your business coming across as blinkered when doing business overseas. Investing time in your language skills, and language skills in your organisation at large on the other hand, can offer significant business benefits and opportunities too.

Show your competence and warmth

One of the biggest advantages of learning a language to use in business is it dovetails with increased demand for personalised services. In a backlash to the digital age, both consumers and B2B decision-makers want to be treated as individuals.

In peer-to-peer communications, having a command of a customer’s language is an important mark of respect – and an indication of a commitment to good customer service. At the very least, an initial introductory chat in your customer’s native language shows warmth and competence.

Gathering business intel

When it comes to entrepreneurship, knowledge is power. The better your intelligence, the better the decisions you will make. With global merchandise trade worth nearly 20 trillion U.S. dollars a year, having a grasp of languages will give you greater opportunities to capture some of this market.

For example, you won’t have to rely on translators when conducting business in foreign marketplaces you want to develop, which can save time and missteps. You can also read your prospective contact’s foreign language website or other background information without relying on Google translations and pick up crucial information which your competitors may have missed.

Greater confidence in foreign trade expansion

For many export-linked businesses, a key business strategy will be expanding into overseas markets, especially markets with growing consumer sectors in Asia, Africa and South America. Unlike more established export markets in Europe and the US, many consumers and businesses in these emerging markets don’t speak English.

In fact, while it has long been assumed that English is the world’s lingua franca, the truth is more people speak Spanish globally than they do English. However, both Spanish and English are dwarfed by the most commonly spoken language in the world – Mandarin Chinese.

Improving export success

Some SMEs hesitate to expand into new locations primarily due to the ‘language barrier’. This makes it a confidence issue, especially as language skills can help with intense negotiations and ‘reading between the lines’ in meetings and in digital communications.

A lack of linguistic confidence then can be a real barrier to business growth with data suggesting that businesses with linguistic abilities enjoy 44% more export sales than those without. Nationally too, an over-reliance on English can be disadvantageous. A Trade & Investment review from the UK government concluded that language deficiencies act as a barrier to UK engagement in exporting.

It’s imperative then, for international facing businesses, that you develop a corporate language strategy.

Language learning options

Thanks to technology – wherever you are in the world, and whatever new marketplace you want to explore – learning a language for business purposes is easier than it ever has been. With the ability to carry flash-cards, dictionaries and even online tutoring around on your smartphone – there’s no reason not to be improving your language skills.  

You can still find in-person courses and individual language coaches to help you to develop business language skills. Many countries have language training providers who deliver group learning inside your workplace too.

However, the best way to proceed is often via online and app-based learning programmes. You can fit these around busy working weeks, and participants become fluent at their own pace.

Which language should you learn first?