Chapter 6: Languages and the business world

“Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…

German government official 

Most business organizations in the English-speaking world are only beginning to wake up to the realities described in the preceding chapters. In the corporate environment, the embrace of imprecise globalized English has been preceded by declining standards of the language used among English-speakers themselves. Articulate language has given way to bullet points and vague buzzwords like proactive, re-purpose, and actionable. The unclear “management-speak” described by author Don Watson in Death Sentences : How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language (Gotham, 2005) is arguably one step removed from the stripped down, globalized versions of English that one frequently encounters in international business situations.

I once attended a seminar on international business negotiations. Noting that the instructor had completely ignored the topic, I asked him what he thought about the role of language skills. Should an English-speaker always insist on using English? He laughed and asked me what language I would prefer: should business negotiations take place in Indonesian?

My answer—as explained in this chapter and the next one —is that yes, there are definitely times when you should conduct your business in Indonesian!

But don’t take my word for it. One English-speaking CEO recognized the need to do business in a language that very few of us in the Western world have mastered: Korean.

The British CEO who spoke to Korean consumers—in Korean

In November 2003, struggling Korean automaker GM Daewoo launched a series of television commercials aimed at boosting its sales in Korea. Among other challenges, the company was fighting a public perception problem. Its two main competitors in the Korean market, Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, were homegrown Korean firms. GM Daewoo, on the other hand, was owned mostly by U.S. automaker General Motors. Polls revealed that the average Korean consumer viewed the company as an outsider with a questionable commitment to the Korean market. The company needed a publicity campaign to establish itself as a “real” Korean firm.

Nick Reilly, the company’s British-born CEO, took the GM Daewoo message to the Korean public. His appearance in Korean television commercials made national news in Korea, and reverberated throughout the global automotive industry. He was, of course, not the first automotive CEO to appear on TV. Jacques Nasser, Lee Iacocca, and several members of the Ford clan have also stepped down from the CEO’s pedestal to directly pitch their company’s wares to consumers.

Nick Reilly’s television appearances made news because the CEO addressed viewers in Korean. Using their own language, Reilly expressed the company’s commitment to Korea, and its desire to be accepted as a truly “Korean” automaker.

Japanese executives from Toyota and Honda regularly address American audiences in English (and Mexican audiences Spanish, etc.) –but this doesn’t make the news. Korean is an especially challenging language; but the reporters who showered so much attention on Reilly’s publicity campaign did not focus on the relative difficulty of the Korean language. The commercials made the news because a high-ranking manager from the English-speaking world was displaying real competency in a foreign language. The Korean-language commercials would likely have been deemed less newsworthy if the GM Daewoo CEO would have been a German or a Japanese national.

Nick Reilly’s Korean television commercials prove that a native English-speaker need not be a professional linguist in order to competently handle a foreign language. Moreover, there is clear evidence that the corporate world values foreign language skills. (Otherwise, U.S. multinationals would not hire so many of the foreign-born educated elite.) Therefore, the next logical question is: Why don’t more American businesspersons learn a foreign language?

“But a Language Isn’t A Business Skill.”

I recall from my undergraduate days a subtle sense of competition that existed between the liberal arts colleges and the business/technical schools. My friends who were liberal arts majors regarded subjects like accounting as hopelessly dry and uninspiring. Business and technical students, meanwhile, dismissed liberal arts courses as impractical annoyances—useful only for fulfilling general studies requirements.

American managers who resist learning languages often assert that “a foreign language isn’t really a business skill.” The irony is that they are right—and profoundly wrong—at the same time. A foreign language isn’t a technical business skill—like calculating present value or deciphering an income statement. A foreign language is a basic competence—more akin to literacy or arithmetic skills than to advanced financial analysis.

Here is another way to look at it: If your work involves the Mexican market and you don’t speak Spanish, then your inability to speak the language prevents you from performing basic tasks. Spanish proficiency, as a skill, is arguably distinct from the skills acquired in an MBA program. But this distinction is irrelevant in the real world. A person working at a professional level in the Mexican market should be able to speak Spanish. This is especially true if the job involves extensive communication and cooperation with others.

Hearts and Minds

Although Nick Reilly’s training in the Korean language might be a story in itself, the important question is: why did the company choose to have Reilly address the Korean public in Korean? From a purely utilitarian standpoint, this wasn’t necessary—and certainly not efficient. Nick Reilly could have appeared in the commercial speaking English, and they could have dubbed a voiceover by a native Korean-speaker. Subtitles could have been used. For that matter, the company could have allowed one of their Korean executives to appear in the commercial, thereby avoiding any tinge of “foreignness.”

Nick Reilly appeared in the commercial because a British CEO who speaks Korean symbolized the company’s commitment to the Korean market more effectively than Korean subtitles, voiceovers, or a Korean-born representative. As is often the case where language is concerned, it was much more than a simple matter of translation.

Foreign language skills allow you to identify more closely with others. The link between language and identity continues to be strong, even in the globalized 21st century. Polls in Russia indicate that businesspersons resent foreigners who want to do business in Russia but refuse to learn the language. (In Chapter 8, we read about a young American who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance when it was delivered in a language other than English.) Two of the world’s main religions—Judaism and Islam—maintain a strong link between their faith and specific languages (Hebrew and Arabic, respectively).

While a language does not guarantee personal rapport, it can often be the first step to identifying with your audience. When we Americans meet a person abroad who speaks our language, we often assume that they have a knowledge of and appreciation for the United States. When we go to the trouble of learning another language, non-English-speakers give us the same benefit of the doubt.

Reading and listening between the lines

Knowledge of a language is sometimes necessary in order to really understand what a person means (as opposed to a translation, which merely tells you what the person has said.) Consider the following phrase in Japanese:


The above (pronounced chotto muzukashii desu) translates into English as “it’s a little difficult.” However, when a native Japanese-speaker tells you that your proposal is “a little difficult,” she really means, “It’s not going to happen. Forget about it.” But you may not get this insight from a translator, or a member of a Japanese delegation who happens to speak English.

Subtleties like the above are not unique to Japanese. They exist in every language, including English. Examine the following three statements:

I’m annoyed at what you did.

I am incensed at your actions in this matter.

You’ve really pissed me off.

A basic translation of each of the above three sentences will tell you that the speaker is displeased. The particular choice of words in each sentence contains insights about the speaker’s degree of anger, her level of education, and the relationship between the speaker and the listener. In order to read between these lines, you have to understand English. Likewise, grasping a person’s true feelings, intentions, or motivations often requires an understanding of Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.

The power of taking the initiative

I am on the mailing list of a number of language textbook publishers. I recently received an advance copy of a business Chinese textbook that proposed the following scenario: “Suppose you are representing an American company in Shenzhen, opening discussions with a prospective Chinese client. The first words out of your mouth include an idiomatic Chinese expression that perfectly fits the situation. You even have a draft copy of the contract in your attaché case—written in correct, formal Chinese.”

In many contexts, we recognize the value of being able to “master another person’s game” or “score points on the other team’s home turf.” Linguistically, this is the power of taking the initiative—of entering another person’s world and persuading her using her own idiomatic paradigms.

Without foreign language skills, English-speakers are unable to take the initiative as described above. Instead, we are forever at the mercy of the other side’s abilities in English. Moreover, since it is always the other side that is meeting us halfway by speaking our language, we are hobbled by a need to defer to the fact that they are speaking English. In this regard, the global status of English in the business world is a constraint rather than a source of power for native English-speakers—because those who learn English are always free to score points on our home turf.

The costs of relying on the language skills of others

The costs of this relying on the language skills of others are many: untapped market opportunities, increased personnel costs, and the surrender of managerial autonomy—just to name a few.

I once met an American manager who was sent to Japan on a five-year assignment. When I asked him if he learned Japanese, he nonchalantly informed me that he had no need for the language. “I had a bilingual administrative assistant,” he said. “She served as my eyes and ears.”

With all due respect to the administrative assistants of the world, there is a problem when a manager relies on administrative staff to function as his or her “eyes and ears.” This manager was in charge of a marketing division of a large consumer products firm; but he could not even read the local consumer press, or comprehend the television commercials that his company produced for Japanese television. His perceptions of the Japanese market—and indeed of his own workplace—were created by others.

One of the primary costs of our reliance on Global English is that American businesspersons resign themselves to experiencing the non-English-speaking world secondhand. Rather than just diving in and reading the local business press or talking to key employees on the plant floor, American expatriate managers must wait for an intermediary—for someone who speaks English.

Chapter 7 explores a scenario in which one of these intermediaries is actively duplicitous. But even when the intermediaries are honest, there is always a loss of certain nuances. Time and efficiency are also lost, because waiting for a translation takes time, and a willing translator will not always be at hand.

Talk to Everyone

When you restrict yourself to speaking only English, you restrict the number of people whose hearts and minds you can reach. This is true not only in business, but in international relations as well. When Yasser Arafat was the leader of the PLO, Israeli leaders consistently complained that his professed desire for peace was meaningless when it was said in English. What was important, the Israelis stressed, was what Arafat said in Arabic, since this message reached an entirely different audience.

You may never have any involvement in international diplomacy. If your job involves the non-English-speaking world, though, there will be numerous occasions when you will need to communicate with someone who speaks little or no English. English skills cannot be taken for granted overseas outside the circle of the educated elite.

It is one thing to rely on English when contacting the central headquarters of a Fortune 500 company. However, suppose that your job takes you to the office of a small distributor in Brazil, a factory in France, or a branch office that serves the local market in Japan. In these situations, English will never be enough.

In one of my previous positions in the automotive industry, I spent many hours on the plant floor of Nissan Mexicana, talking to quality control inspectors, machinists, shipping personnel, and other staff whose duties were internally oriented. Spanish proved indispensable in this environment. If your company is involved in overseas manufacturing, you will likely encounter a similar situation.  You will be able to gather plant-side information, make department-level contacts, and represent your company much more effectively if you can speak the local language.


In theory, business meetings that involve people who speak multiple languages should be held in English. In my experience, these English-language meetings usually break down after about ten minutes, as attendees inevitably branch into side conversations in the languages in which they are most comfortable.

I will refer again to my experience in Mexico: In meetings, there were usually three nationalities present: Americans, Japanese, and Mexicans. Some of the Japanese in attendance spoke fluent Spanish but could not speak English. Some of the Mexicans were fluent in English, and others could barely speak English.  Although the intention was to conduct business in English, the meetings would inevitably split into separate English-, Japanese-, and Spanish-language conversations.

I was thankful on these occasions that I could speak all three languages. Sometimes it would be necessary for me to join a side conversation in Spanish or Japanese. The time that I had invested in learning these languages frequently enabled me to gain valuable information, or to convince a key participant regarding my own company’s position.

Take your share of the linguistic burden

Throughout most of my business activities in Mexico, my main contact was a man named Miguel. Miguel had a good working knowledge of English, and I never encountered a situation in which I felt that he was trying to be dishonest or manipulative. I sensed early on that Miguel rather enjoyed practicing his English with me, so I never addressed him in Spanish. Miguel wasn’t even aware that I could speak Spanish until I visited Mexico and met with his manager, who spoke only Spanish.

After Miguel realized that I could speak Spanish, he began to speak in Spanish to me during about one out of every three telephone calls. Once, when he complimented me on my Spanish, I assured him that his English was quite good, and that he could feel free to address me in English. (At this time, I was spending one week out of every month in Mexico—so I was getting plenty of Spanish practice.)

“It’s just that I get tired of speaking English all the time,” Miguel said. “You know—there are times when it is just easier if I can telephone you in Spanish.”

Even if you primarily use English for business purposes, your counterparts will be appreciative if you don’t require them to make the effort all of the time. Speaking in another language for hours on end is a mentally taxing process—as you may soon discover.

I once worked with a South African man named Martin who told me an interesting story about the give-and-take that accompanied his own multilingual environment. Martin served a stint in the South African army, and his comrades were a mixture of native English speakers and Afrikaans speakers. Both groups were more or less fully bilingual, but it was obviously more taxing for the English speakers to use Afrikaans all day, and English was a burden for the Afrikaans speakers. They therefore developed the custom of making English the “official” language one week, and Afrikaans the primary mode of communication the next week. This way, no one was unfairly forced to speak a foreign language one hundred percent of the time.

Read anything, anytime

Overseas companies and governments produce plenty of documentation in English—when there is an economic incentive for them to do so. Most of the translations produced abroad are created with one purpose in mind: to sell something to the English-speaking world. Hyundai, for example, does not force American consumers to learn Korean in order to learn about the cars that the company manufactures.

Beyond the consumer level, though, translations become more difficult to find. There is no economic incentive for translating many of the materials that American businesses could employ to research overseas markets. Trade magazines and other periodicals written for a specific local market will be available only in the local language. The same is true for many government reports, industry websites, and consumer surveys.

Translations can always be purchased. When doing market research, however, it is often necessary to survey a wide range of materials—much of which ultimately turns out to be useless. Hiring out this volume of translations would be prohibitively expensive in many cases. (Imagine having to use a translator to execute a hundred or so searches on the Internet.) Purchased translations are only cost-effective when a small, finite amount of material is needed.

Trade Shows

Overseas trade shows and industry exhibitions can provide excellent opportunities to conduct research about a foreign market—if you can communicate.  You will not be able to take full advantage of these situations unless you are able to talk to any person on the exhibition floor. If you are limited by the language barrier, then you will likely wander around looking for someone who happens to speak English. If you speak the local language, on the other hand, then you can confidently walk up to anyone and begin a conversation.

Total Market Research Skills

The impact of language skills becomes clear when applied to a comprehensive business objective. Suppose that you want to research the market for your company’s products in Mexico. There are several methods that you could employ. You could:

1. Search for information on the Internet

2. Contact local chambers of commerce in Mexico

3. Make exploratory calls to potential customers by telephone

4. Attend trade shows in Mexico.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. However, all of these activities would require the ability to read and/or speak Spanish.

Moving beyond “The Tiny Superstar Subset”

Up to this point, the educated elite from Asia, South America, Europe, and elsewhere have had a virtual monopoly on the bilingual liaison positions that are so necessary in the global business environment. When an American multinational corporation hires a German-speaking accountant or a Chinese-speaking lawyer, the person who fills the position is almost always a foreign national who was educated in the United States. This is not the result of some vast conspiracy. Few native English-speakers even compete for these jobs, because so few can fulfill the bilingual requirements. The result is that Americans, Britons, Canadians, and Australians have voluntarily chosen to disqualify themselves from thousands of lucrative positions in the global job market.

A 2001 article in described the competition for bilingual positions in Europe as almost exclusively European. European professionals are focused on the global marketplace, and actively study foreign languages, so they claim most of the more desirable management-track positions on the Continent:

“….your competition will be primarily Europeans — not other Americans. Many European managers now are focused on building international careers and willing to cross borders for a good opportunity…. A number have been educated in the U.S. or outside their home country, and most speak English, in addition to three or more European languages… The most desirable candidates, say recruiters, are Americanized Europeans, a tiny superstar subset. ”

(Source: “Execs Looking to Europe Face Several Challenges” by Sharon Voros,, 2001)

The above article refers to the job market in Europe, but very similar lines could have been written about the many globalized segments of the job market in the United States. American professionals cannot even compete effectively for the bilingual positions that exist in our own country—much less the ones that exist abroad.

In fact, jobs for bilingual professionals in the United States are often written with the assumption that the person who fills the job will be a non-American. The bilingual positions advertised on often list visa and green card requirements.

The situation has become so bad that many managers in the United States believe that it would be a waste of time to even look for an American with language skills. I recently had a conversation with a professor of foreign languages who teaches at a university in the Midwest. When she found out that the CEO of a local company was planning a recruiting session on campus, she was enthusiastic: she is especially interested in the applicability of languages in the business world. Then she heard the details: the CEO planned to focus his recruiting efforts on foreign exchange students. He apparently did not believe that any American candidates would possess the language skills he needed.

This “foreigners first” approach to recruiting language talent has become an accepted practice in the United States. In Japan, however, it would strike everyone as counterintuitive. Japanese companies do hire foreigners who speak Japanese, but their first instinct is to hire Japanese nationals who speak other languages.

Hire the best candidate—not the best English-speaker

Writing in an article posted on, Sharon Voros mentioned the “tendency [of U.S. companies] to hire the best English speaker – rather than the best manager – for a foreign management post.” I have dubbed this tendency the “English blindfold.”

Many American companies wear the “English blindfold” when selecting key staff and partner firms in overseas markets. In one case that I am familiar with, an American machine tool company was recruiting technical sales staff in Mexico. Since the sales job was for the Spanish-speaking Mexican market, English capabilities should have been a negligible consideration. But no one on the U.S. side spoke Spanish. As a result, the company limited its consideration to candidates who spoke English.

The result was disastrous; the company ended up hiring three individuals who knew English—but not machine tools. I later found out that the company summarily rejected the Spanish-language résumés of more than a dozen candidates who could have performed competently in the Mexican machine tool market.

This situation is not isolated. American multinational companies frequently assume that the overseas staff member who speaks the best English also possesses the strongest business and technical skills. This is not surprising. Few American managers speak foreign languages, so they must rely on their overseas employees who do speak English. The flip side of this situation is that American managers are often unaware of business and technical talent residing in the non-English-speaking ranks.


The American attitude that foreign languages are “artsy” pursuits that have no applicability in the business world is outdated and self-defeating. Our foreign competitors who learn English have proved just how practical a foreign language can be.

In the 1920s, U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson shut down the American cryptanalytic (code-breaking) service on the grounds that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” We Americans often rejoice that so much of the world reads our mail—while remaining unable to read their mail. This has obvious implications in the arena of foreign intelligence; but it also has significant implications for our long-term commercial competitiveness.

I sometimes hear American businesspersons express relief when overseas suppliers, customers, employees, and partners can speak English. This relief should be tempered with the realization that these bilingual foreigners hold a trump card over the heads of their monolingual American counterparts—a trump card which is explored in depth in the next chapter.

Chapter 6 Appendix: Establishing a Corporate Language Program

This book primarily examines language study as an individual endeavor. Managers and company owners will naturally speculate about the feasibility of applying the ideas in this book to the organization as a whole. Some managers may want to establish a companywide language study program. Others will prefer to focus their efforts on functional areas that interface frequently with non-English-speaking customers—such as the export sales department.

Company-sponsored learning can be broken down into two broad categories. First, there is onsite learning, in which the company hires instructors who conduct classes in a meeting room or in the company cafeteria. Secondly, there is offsite learning, in which the company subsidizes scholarship that employees pursue in their own spare time.

Onsite learning is best suited to subjects that can be neatly packaged into one- or two-day seminars. The mastery of a foreign language requires a lot of time and effort, and it is doubtful that any organization would be willing to dedicate the time and resources that would be needed in order to conduct effective language instruction onsite. 

The advantages of learning English have been apparent to the Japanese for years, and companies often assist employees by providing in-house English language instruction. These classes are usually offered once or twice per week after work hours, and attendance is voluntary.

However, among the Japanese I have met who are competent in English, very few give much credit to these company-sponsored programs. Most attribute their skills to some individual factor: outside private classes, dedicated self-study, or time spent abroad.

On the other side of the Pacific, the results have been dismal. In the lifetime of every Japanese company in the United States, there is a moment when someone on the American side says, “Hey, let’s all learn Japanese.” The company then either hires an outside teacher, or persuades one of the translators to hold classes one or two evenings per week.

The first night of class, it is standing room only. By the third class, the number of students is reduced by half. After the fourth class, the audience has dwindled to a small handful of people. The tenth class (if it is held at all) will be attended by one or two students.

Most employees attend the first class with a sincere desire to learn a new language, only to emerge overwhelmed at the scope of their new undertaking. A weekly language class will provide employees with a start in learning a language—but significant individual efforts (i.e., homework) will be required. Even employees who have a solid work ethic have probably not done “homework” since they were in high school or college. Therefore, they expect that the class alone will be sufficient to build their skills in a new language. This inevitably leads to a perception of slow progress—and then feelings of discouragement. In the absence of outside study, it would take ten years of weekly classes before any real proficiency could be reached. Individual initiative will always be the key factor in the acquisition of language skills.

This does not mean that employers can take no effective actions to encourage and facilitate language study. The company can make sure that university language courses are covered under its tuition reimbursement policy. The company may also elect to offer partial reimbursement of language study materials, with certain restrictions. A good example would be a 50% reimbursement of language study materials up to $500, for languages that are relevant to the employer.   

Most importantly, managers can promulgate the fact that language skills are a valued commodity within the organization. This can be done formally as well as informally. Some Japanese companies make the attainment of applicable language skills an element of the employee performance review. Another effective measure is to make language skills a prerequisite for positions that deal with outside divisions and customers who speak other languages. 

Table of contents