July 22, 2019

21st century lingua franca: Global business languages

Two women talking at GSM career fair

Across the world, countries and their businesses are waking up to the fact that growth and prosperity simply can’t be enjoyed without first fostering contacts and relationships across the globe. While there’s something to be said for translation software, nothing beats the reputational and interpersonal benefits that are gleaned from speaking a language first-hand to a native speaker

A globalised world has meant that individuals who can speak more than one language can get the edge on their competitors, ascending to the best career positions as a result. Which languages are, and will be, most-spoken in the future though? Why might some rise in prominence more so than others?

English power

The primary global business language is greatly influenced by the dominant economic and political power of the time, this being one of the main reasons why English is today the most prized language by students and business leaders worldwide.

American power in business, financial, military, political and cultural matters has cemented the English language as a globally-dominant one, and the language is spoken in 101 countries worldwide, beating Arabic, French and Chinese, which are each spoken in 60, 51, and 33 nations respectively.

English is also the predominant language of global culture. The majority of internet users communicate in English, books are most likely to be translated into English, and the most globally-recognised films are produced in the language.

As well as the UK, the USA, ex-British colonies and territories such as Hong Kong and historic allies of Anglophone countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway all have large numbers of English speakers.

There is a large issue with this English-centric outlook though. Given that these nations are not necessarily high-growth countries, the imperative for learning another language right now is great for those that want to make their mark in the global business world.

Pre-eminent languages

Markets such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Middle East and Nigeria are some of the best places to invest in today’s global business climate, and will likely remain so for some time. As these countries’ large, young populations flex their muscles, over time these rapidly-growing economic zones will grow in importance, especially to individuals who provide higher-value services and products that only middle and high income countries enjoy.

Of the languages above, the most important to learn might appear to be Chinese, Hindi and Bengali – populations of these three are predicted to reach 1.3 billion, 1.3 billion, and 750 million by 2050, respectively, affording a huge market to do business in. Focusing on these could be an error though.

The reason is that, given how difficult these languages are to learn, how many dialects exist and how localised they are on a global scale, it’s unlikely that a huge number of people will go out of their way to learn them. Mandarin Chinese can take up to two years of focused study to learn at a relatively proficient level, compared to French or Spanish, which both take around six months for English speakers to master.

This is forgetting, of course, the economic rise of other regions. African countries, with their colonial linguistic heritage – French, in particular – are touted as future growth hubs, while South and Central America, where Spanish and Portuguese are most widely-spoken, are similarly poised to enjoy stratospheric levels of growth. For those interested in entering the oil and gas sector, a skill in Arabic can be beneficial.

Linguistic decisions

For tomorrow’s business leaders, being able to speak more than one language is very important, however, the particular tongues chosen depend highly on the particular career one is engaged in.

Investors in high-income areas will prize Arabic, German, and Japanese more so than those operating in middle and low-income countries, whose grasp of Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi could put them in reward-reaping position when said countries inevitably rise up the economic pecking order.

Whichever language is chosen though, the benefits are clear. According to the British Council, around 75% of the UK population have no language skills whatsoever, yet 70% of businesses prize language skills in the staff, meaning that those who have learnt a new language can easily enjoy tangible career and salary benefits.

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