Why Business Owners Should Speak Multiple Languages

We live in a global economy, and there's no getting around that fact. We can pick up a phone and call or get on our computers and email people just about anywhere in the world. English has become an increasingly commonplace language in other countries, there is still a significant amount of business done in other languages. Multi-national powerhouse companies like Japan's Bridgestone, Germany's Daimler-Chrysler, and Finland's Nokia have mandated that their work forces speak English in business dealings, but many mid- to small-sized businesses and business to business firms speak their native language in business dealings.

Learning a foreign language comes with a host of benefits, as it can help your mind develop shortcuts, stave off mental decay, and stimulate different parts of your brain. However, we are going to focus on the business impact of learning multiple languages. Firstly, Albert Saiz, an MIT economist, calculated that learning a foreign language can provide employees with a 2% annual earnings premium.

I am going to focus on the opportunity in Germany, because I am a bit biased to German, having attained conversational fluency in it during college. These examples can easily be carried across to different cultures and markets with slight variation. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the mid- to small-sized businesses are referred to as the Mittelstand. There are three main classifications of businesses in Germany, as defined by Venohr, Fear & Witt: 'Classic' SME-type Mittelstand firms, 'Upper'-sized Mittelstand firms, and Large Corporations. For the sake of this article, we are referring to the 'Classic' SME-type Mittelstand firms, whose revenues are below €50 million annually. These types of businesses make up 99% of German businesses and are often highly focused and family-owned. These are the companies that often aren't nearly as incentivized to standardize to the English language for business purposes as large corporations are, because a much lower percentage of their business is done with foreign language speakers.

This is the type of situation that presents savvy entrepreneurs with language skills an opportunity to shine. Learning a foreign language gives you the opportunity to reach more clients, seek foreign investment, expand distribution, find joint venture partners, work remotely with non-English speakers, and gain access to new technologies and strategies as you develop new relationships.

If you're sold on learning a new language, there are plenty of great tools available to self-starters, which I would presume you are if you're an entrepreneur. Of all the language tools I have used, my favorite has been Duolingo, which is a free website that turns language learning into a game. Sign up for free and start learning here.  There is also a popular polyglot named Benny who has written a load of great and free articles on his blog, Fluent in 3 Months.

If you're trying to decide on a language to learn, there are a few things to consider. What industry is your business in? If you're in oil, for example, you might consider learning Arabic. If you're in engineering, German is a good bet! If you're in manufacturing, you probably can't go wrong with Mandarin (good luck). You can also take a more general approach if you're a service provider who could serve many different industries, and you could consider the GDP by language, which has been provided here. The post uses data from 2013 by the Common Sense Advisory (CSA). The top five languages by GDP in 2013 were:

  1. English
  2. Japanese
  3. German
  4. Spanish
  5. Simplified Chinese

Do you have any experiences in working with foreign businesses? Any foreign language recommendations? How about resources for language learning? We would love to hear some of your insights, so please share below in the comments.

Joshua Slate

Entrepreneur. Rock climber. Software engineer. Founder of @SlatePeak and others.

Saint Paul, MN

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