During a business trip to China, Greg Wright decided he would like to speak Mandarin. Part of his motivation was to be able to say "thank you"—"xie xie"—in the native language of the Chinese working with Wright Global Graphics, the Thomasville, North Carolina, marketing services and support company he heads.
That was five years ago. After taking all the Mandarin courses at his community college, studying with a private tutor, working with Rosetta Stone language learning software, participating in conversational get-togethers at a Chinese cultural center and taking additional trips to China, he has spent many hours and a moderate amount of money on learning this new language. His progress?
“I'm getting there. I wouldn't declare that I speak Chinese,” Wright says. “I don’t want people to call me and start talking in Mandarin.”
But he can order a glass of wine and, more importantly, converse with business associates. And he believes the effort helps Wright Global’s business relationships in China. “I think they enjoy the fact that you’re trying, that you’re showing an interest in their culture,” he says.
The Second Language Edge
By learning another language, Wright places himself among a minority of Americans who speak a second language. About three-quarters of Americans speak English only, says Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Virginia.
Language differences represent some of the biggest barriers to international trade, Abbott says. Four of the top five U.S. trading partners are China, Mexico, Japan and Germany, all non-English speaking nations. And of the top 10 U.S. trading partners, only Canada and the United Kingdom have English as a national language.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., 38 million Americans use Spanish as their primary language at home, according to the Census Bureau. Marketing to, buying from or managing Spanish-speaking Americans as consumers, suppliers or employees in their preferred language is a plus, Abbott says.
Not surprisingly, Spanish is the language most commonly learned by businesspeople in the U.S.
According to Language Testing International, the most popular tests for business proficiency in 2013 were Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian. The hot languages reflect both the size and prospects for growth of business ties to countries speaking those languages, Abbott says.
Free, Inexpensive Language Resources
Generally, people learn one language as young children. But adult American businesspeople trying to learn a second tend to pay for instruction in one way or another. Like Wright, many start at a local community college. These courses are economical and widely available. For example, in Ohio, the Center for Workforce Development at Columbus State Community College offers a basic Spanish course for $150.
Online resources are also plentiful and inexpensive or free. Mango Language promises to teach any of 60 languages for “less than a few tanks of gas.” Duolingo improves the value proposition further, offering free instruction in Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese.
Individual human tutoring, at about $50 per lesson, provides students with one-on-one attention and personalized feedback. Wright says he also likes being able to work tutoring sessions into his schedule, rather than having to follow the college class schedule.
Interactive multimedia computer-based language instruction software such as Rosetta Stone can be taken online, offline, in combination or mobile using tablets and smartphones. Speech-recognition technology can help with pronunciation and programs may also include live chats with humans. At about $500 per level, a student can spend as much as $2,500 to complete five levels of Rosetta Stone.
Most public libraries offer recorded audio courses as well as computer-aided instruction language programs for free use by cardholders. Likewise, cultural centers in many communities host free language exchange sessions to help those learning English practice with a native speaker, and vice versa.
The Mixxer is a free website dedicated to arranging informal Skype chat sessions for the purpose of learning a new language. For students who need more formal instruction, Helpouts by Google pairs learners with people who have special expertise, including in languages, sometimes for pay and sometimes for free. A session with a qualified Spanish teacher there costs about $30.
Immersion: The Ultimate Learning Tool
The gold standard of language instruction is immersion, the sink-or-swim experience of being in a place where everyone speaks the language you want to learn. Language teaching companies organize immersion trips lasting from a week to a month or more to countries where the desired language is spoken.
For students unable or unwilling to travel, stateside programs can immerse them in 40 hours or so of class time per week. These promise to impart the equivalent of several semester-long courses in a month or two. For example, the Boston Language Institute offers immersion courses in languages including Arabic, Farsi, Japanese, Mandarin and Portuguese for $1,695 to $2,095, meeting for as long as four and-a-half hours a day for four to six weeks.
While it’s possible to learn languages without spending money, time savings are more difficult. New students exposed to advertising promises may expect to achieve fluency in as little as 10 days, Abbott says. “Those are misleading,” she warns. Especially for adults who have never learned a second language, becoming fluent in a new tongue is unavoidably time-consuming.
“Can it be done very quickly?” Abbott asks. “No. Can it be done so that you can function? Yes. But it does take commitment.” Much depends on the effort and attention the student can devote, as well as the language. For instance, Spanish is regarded as easier than Chinese.
Payoffs can be significant. Abbott cites one medium-sized company that hired a new business school graduate who was fluent in Chinese and Spanish and, within a year, had increased exports from 1 percent to 9 percent of sales. “It’s an essential skill and it’s only going to become more so,” she says.
There is a catch: Students often must sacrifice some dignity. Wright says in one Mandarin conversation he referred to his head when he was actually talking about a cat. “They were really confused for about four minutes,” he recalls. “But that happens even when two people speak the same language and you’re in a different culture. It’s part of the experience.”
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