Language, and appropriate language use, is extremely important in the business world. Many people now seek to work for companies and organizations from all around the globe. In order to work internationally, it is helpful to know the language(s) that the company uses or works with. Furthermore, knowing the languages used by a business may assist you in better understanding both their target market and the needs of their local consumer base. Here’s where learning one of the most frequently used languages in international business communication comes into play.
English is one of the most widely used languages in the world, and is spoken especially in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada. It has almost a billion speakers worldwide, though only about a third of those are native speakers. English is also often used as the language of international organizations, prestigious universities, businesses, and travelers. Therefore, taking into account its status as the general-standard language for international communication, English is considered one of the most, if not the most, important language for business purposes globally. Because of the relative accessibility of English language instruction, and the prevalent soft-power of American culture, English will likely remain in power on the international stage for the conceivable future. For many, the English language still signifies opportunity, prestige, and a higher standard of living.
Mandarin (Chinese) is a one of the best languages for business because of the sheer number of people that speak it: nearly 1 billion worldwide. The demand for Mandarin speakers is growing worldwide because China is a leader in the world of business. China is a manufacturing powerhouse of the world (think of all the “made in China” products you have at home), and home to many large international corporations, such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Tiktok. Because Chinese and English have very different grammars, writing systems, and words, Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn for native speakers of English, expected to take roughly 2200 class hours, in an intensive language course, in order to reach professional working proficiency. That means, if you studied for 5 hours each day, it would take roughly a year and a half (88 weeks)! And it you can’t spare 5 hours a day for studying, it’s likely to take quite a bit longer!
Originating from Spain and with over half a billion speakers across the globe, Spanish has spread throughout much of the world to become one of the most widely spoken languages. It is used in Europe, South America, and Central America, as well as being spoken by a sizable portion of people in the United States, where it is the second most common language. Furthermore, Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers, requiring only about 600-750 class hours to reach professional working competency.
Arabic is a language spoken primarily in the Middle East and northern Africa, with over 400 million speakers, worldwide. Studying the Arabic language has become popular in recent years, both among people who want to use it recreationally, and among those who want to use it for business, thanks to the oil and gas industries in the Middle East. However, other industries have begun to boom in Arabic-speaking regions as well, such as tourism and fashion.
Arabic is similar to Chinese in that, though it is referred to as one language, many dialects of Arabic are so different from one another that they may not be mutually understandable. For example, an Arabic speaker from Egypt and one from Turkey would likely have a hard time understanding one another. Even though they are both speaking Arabic, they are using very different dialects! With that in mind, try to find out what kind of Arabic will benefit you the most for what kind of business you hope to participate in, though a good place to start is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is the variety taught in most schools in the Arabic-speaking world.
Portuguese is the language of Portugal, though, with nearly a quarter-billion speakers, it is also spoken in several countries in South America and Africa. It is especially notable as the native language of Brazil, where it is, unsurprisingly, known as Brazilian Portuguese. Brazil is home to many prominent companies, in industries such as banking and tourism, but Portuguese is also used worldwide. It is the official language of various international organizations (such as the EU and the African Union) and it is used in many humanitarian spheres as well. Portuguese is also not a very commonly studied second language (compared to some of the other languages on this list, at least), so being a bilingual Portuguese speaker is a good way to give yourself a competitive advantage over others!
German is an extremely prevalent language throughout Europe and the rest of the world, with about 75 million speakers in Germany and about 50 million speakers abroad. Germany is a significant player in several industries, such as the production of medical equipment and renewable energy technology. Germany is also a notable world-banking center, housing the head office of the European Central Bank. The German automobile industry is also known worldwide, with massive brands, such as Mercedes, Volkswagen, and BMW. With all of these major companies, if you want to do business in Germany, your German skills will certainly come in handy.
French is one of the most widespread languages in the world, with around 230 million speakers. It is particularly notable for its role as the official language of the United Nations and World Trade Organization, among others. French is primarily spoken in France, Canada (especially in the East), and much of northwestern Africa, so it will be useful for business in many areas of the globe. Like Spanish and Portuguese, French is also in the easiest category of languages to learn for English speakers, and these are expected to take learners about the same amount of time to reach professional working competency in (roughly 600-750 class hours).
Unlike many of the other languages on this list, Japanese is unique in that nearly all of its 125 million speakers are in only one country: Japan itself. However, the many international corporations that exist in Japan provide a considerable incentive for even those people who live outside of the country to learn the language. Japanese media is also considerably widespread around the world, leading, inevitably, to many people developing an interest in the culture and language. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world and is a leader in an incredible number of different industries, especially in the automobile and technology sectors. Business in Japanese is often done using the most polite form of Japanese, called keigo (敬語), which can be tricky to learn, which means that, when studying Japanese for business, you’ll have to learn not only how to use standard Japanese, but also this additional language variety. That being said, having a good understanding of standard Japanese should be enough to allow you to get the hang of keigo relatively quickly and without too much trouble.
Hindi is the most prominent of the 20+ languages spoken in India, with over half a billion speakers, and it is spoken primarily in the north of the country. India is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world right now, and is home to many companies and industries, creating an increased demand for bilingual speakers of Hindi. In addition, despite India’s using many languages, Hindi is used in all government documents. Learning Hindi might help you catch the local marketplace, if you want to build your business and trade with this booming economy. Also of note is Hindi’s similarity to Urdu, the language spoken in most of Pakistan.
Why is it Important to Learn a Foreign Language for Business?
Knowing foreign languages is important in business because any business, whether well-established or a startup, must cross the language barrier eventually in order to develop and increase its market internationally. However, this is only doable if staff can interact with the target market in their native language. Keep in mind that learning a language does not only help you with finding a career abroad, there are also many domestic careers in which bilingualism can benefit you, both by allowing you to interact with people who speak the target language in your home country and by allowing you to travel to other parts of the globe.
What Components of Language are Important for Business?
There are several components of language that will certainly be important for global business purposes, and are worth focusing on while studying, such as greetings, formal language, and specific topical vocabulary relevant to your own company’s business. Of course, all parts of a language are necessary to achieve true fluency, and business language isn’t much of an exception. However, the more specific nature of business language means that you are focused on a niche so, instead of having to learn terms and grammar for every situation, you may only need to reach proficiency in small, targeted areas. As with many areas of language learning, it is truly up to the individual or, in some cases, the company they work for, to determine what areas are truly necessary to learn.
What Level of Language is Enough for Business?
The language level you’ll need to have to work at a business will often be outlined as part of a job ad, using a rating scale, such as ACTFL or CEFL. While the exact level of language fluency that is “enough” will certainly depend on the individual, there are several elements of language that are going to be universally required for business. For reference, most companies require either at least a B2 or C1 level on the CEFL scale but there are, of course, many exceptions and it depends on the specific job. Fortunately, these standards are reasonably well-documented, and scales provide established standards for the various levels of business language proficiency.
What is the Best Way to Learn a Language for Business?
There are many different resources to assist anyone who wishes to learn another language, for business purposes or otherwise. The most popular and effective methods are to learn via apps, by taking online language courses, especially those geared towards a business environment. Mango Languages, for example, offers courses specifically designed for business purposes in Mandarin, Spanish, and English for speakers of Spanish. Of course, there are free resources available as well, such as reading blog posts on language learning or trying to make acquaintances who know your target language, to practice with. Whatever method you choose, learning a new language will certainly open up doors in your life. Be sure to take advantage of these new opportunities, whether business-related or not!
ACTFL. (2015). Language proficiency testing in 120+ languages | LTI. The American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages. https://www.languagetesting.com/pub/media/wysiwyg/PDF/oral-prof-in-workplace.pdf
ACTFL Professional Programs. (2012). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012. Retrieved from https://aappl.actfl.org/sites/default/files/guidelines/ACTFLProficiencyGuidelines2012.pdf
Tagarelli, K. (2022, January 5). Are some languages harder to learn? The Mango Blog. https://blog.mangolanguages.com/are-some-languages-harder-to-learn
Tagarelli, K. (2022). Are Some Languages Harder to Learn? | Science Behind Language Learning. Youtube. Mango Languages. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN3R6RhVmEY