Why You Should Learn Another Language

Those who speak more than one language have a greater chance of succeeding in business.
by Lisa Chau

In “Tips for Staying Competitive in a Global Job Market” I suggested adding at least one other language to your skill set. In an increasingly globalized economy, being a polyglot is definitely advantageous for corporate success.The benefits of effective communication across multiple languages have long been known by the international business community as an indispensable tool for relationship building and financial success.

In fact, those entering the workforce in 2014 with second language fluency can expect an additional 10 to 15 percent pay increase, according to Ryan McMunn, language expert and CEO of BRIC Language Systems. McMunn says, “I never would have been successful in China had I not learned how to speak Mandarin. By learning a second language, I had an opportunity to develop relationships with Chinese executives and conduct business in ways that otherwise would not have been possible.”

He offers an example from his experience dealing with a product recall involving his former employer in China. He advised his team to proceed with caution while they searched for a solution based on the “guanxi,” the concept of personal connections. At the time, McMunn had already developed a strong relationship with the factory owner and his family through many business and casual conversations in Mandarin. Over their five-year friendship, McMunn helped the owner’s son get into an American school, and the owner helped McMunn establish relationships with other local business leaders.

When it came time to negotiate recall costs, McMunn’s company company treated the factory as a partner rather than simply a vendor. Their negotiations were completely conducted in Mandarin, and started with a discussion about families: How the factory owner’s son was doing in the U.S. and how McMunn’s sister was enjoying her new job. The five-hour marathon meeting ended better than McMunn could have hoped. The factory owner agreed to pay half the cost of the recall over the following year, and abided by the arrangement. The relationship between the two companies improved since the incident, and business flourished with a substantial growth in customers.

McMunn credits much of his success abroad to his language skills.

Hal Johnson, a senior adviser and former chairman of global human resources at Korn Ferry, frequently counsels business school students and corporate executives about ways to stay on top of their careers. He frequently urges job seekers to learn Mandarin “as soon as they can, if they want to get a leg up on their competition and accelerate their futures. Anything that helps or speeds up their preparation can be a significant plus!”

Arvind Chary, managing principal of Atlas Real Estate Partners, has been more focused on hiring multilingual employees as his company expands into markets with large Spanish speaking populations. He says, “We have been raising more capital from abroad and need employees who can communicate with our foreign investors. I would encourage anyone to learn a second language in order to advance their career opportunities.”

I advise learning additional languages as early as possible. Not only is the skill easier to pick up when young, it will also boost mental aptitude during the school years leading up to eventual employment. According to Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist, children who are exposed to multiple languages at an early age are able to activate certain networks within the brain that enhance cognitive function. “Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to 10 years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback,” says Willis, citing a 2009 study by psychologist Ellen Bialystok. The brain networks that Willis references are known as the “CEO networks” which regulate executive functions such as goal setting and achieving, planning, memory, analysis, inhibitory control and judgment.

Biologically speaking, in a study by neuroimaging researcher and analyst Cathy Price of the University College London, bilinguals have more gray matter in the portion of the brain that is suspected to be associated with vocabulary acquisition. Price explains that when an individual is learning a second language, the vocabulary acquisition portion of the brain is literally getting a workout. Much like any other muscle you may work out in the gym, the brain will become stronger, thus becoming stimulated for growth. Increased gray matter means that the brain will work faster and more efficiently. Language learning is described as a kind of re-wiring of the brain which can form new neurons and connections among the intellectual network. So adding another language to your skill set is simply smart.