Four reasons why language skills are good for your business brain

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Written by Donavan Whyte on 17 February 2016

Speaking more than one language can improve a person’s job prospects, potentially opening up opportunities for roles in global business. But there could also be other career-related benefits to gaining foreign language proficiency. A growing number of studies have looked into the cognitive effects of bi- or multilingualism, and some findings suggest that speaking another language can benefit people’s general business skills.

Better Decision-Making

Research from psychologists at the University of Chicago suggest that people make more logical decisions when using their second, non-native language. As reported by Research Digest from the British Psychological Society, it’s uncertain why this may be the case – why people should think more rationally in a foreign language – but it’s thought to have something to do with the idea of “psychological distance.” Using a non-native language may lead the speaker to be “systematic rather than automatic” in their decision-making.   

Improved Perception

The latest research indicates that bilingual children are better able to see another person’s perspective than those who speak only one language. This could result in improved perception, an important skill in the business world. Such an attribute could help people relate to each other and to negotiate more successfully.

Stronger Relationships

Language skills also expose speakers to different cultures and patterns of behaviour. For global businesses that deal with clients, suppliers and employees around the globe, multilingualism bridges gaps between cultures, and fosters stronger personal relationships on which great business relationships rely.

Masters of Multi-Tasking

A Pennsylvania State University study indicates that people with more than one language make better multi-taskers. It is suggested that this is because switching between languages is a form of “mental exercise” that equips the speaker with mental “juggling” skills.

The ability to multi-task is, of course, valued in business, where modern-day knowledge workers switch between projects constantly throughout the day, and have to prioritise and re-prioritise regularly to keep all the ‘plates spinning.’

‘Business brain’ attributes benefit employers and employees alike, but the importance of languages goes deeper in the business world. Within multinational companies, inter-cultural and virtual teams are becoming the norm, and communication issues can be an obstacle to employee and team productivity. In-house language skills help employees communicate effectively, thus reducing stress and helping drive optimal output.  

For companies selling to customers and partners in target international markets, language skills for client-facing workers are equally critical. Workers who gain the necessary language skills can help the company cut costs by reducing reliance on translators, and result in more efficient, higher-quality negotiations.

In fact, a recent survey of executives responsible for language training in large enterprises across Britain and Germany found that 72 per cent believe language skills help increase sales opportunities. Employees who can speak to customers in their own language will be able to build relationships and trust and increase customer loyalty much more effectively. This was reflected in our survey where 79 per cent of respondents told us language skills help improve relationships with customers. 

In the UK, we have a reputation for limited linguistic skills, and this is a drawback for businesses with an international focus. By not investing in language learning education and recognising its importance, we are cheating ourselves out of optimising our talent and growth potential.

Given today’s global economy, it is vital to have a grasp of languages for international companies to grow and prosper.  Companies who do not, do so at their own peril. 

About the author 

Donavan Whyte is Vice President, EMEA Enterprise & Education at Rosetta Stone.