Markets require language skills

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July 17, 2005|By CAROLYN BIGDA

HABLA INGLES? Parlez-vous anglais? Ni shuo ying-wen ma?

The phrases ask in Spanish, French and Chinese, "Do you speak English?" And around the globe, the answer increasingly is yes.

But though the spread of English may be convenient for Americans, the pressure to learn foreign languages is only heightening -- so much so that Harvard University recently modified the arts and sciences curriculum to include an "expectation" that students pursue an international experience during their studies.

"To be globally competitive and sell into other markets, we will need to know those markets better than our competitors," says Vivien Stewart, vice president of education for the Asia Society, a nonprofit group that promotes communication between the United States and Asia.

Many multinational corporations already derive a significant portion of their earnings abroad. Coca-Cola Co., for instance, earned roughly 70 percent of its 2004 revenue outside North America.

At the same time, the need for cultural understanding also exists at home. In 2003, Latinos and Hispanics made up 13.8 percent of the U.S. population, up from about 12.5 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Thomas Zweifel, a professor of cross-cultural management at Columbia University and author of Culture Clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team (Select Books, $15), points out that the "Got Milk?" advertising campaign when translated into Spanish (Tienes leche?) literally means, "Are you lactating?"

This global society presents a dilemma for many of us: We face a lifetime of being global citizens, but our language experience may be limited and our formal education is finished -- or we can't afford to go back and study a language in school, much less at Harvard.

Fortunately, employers don't expect all of us to be linguists. What's more important is to demonstrate that you're capable of learning and adapting to different cultures.

Foreign language schools: The best way to learn a new language and culture is to immerse yourself in it. Though you may not be able to take off months at a time, even a one- or two-week intensive language program abroad can significantly improve your grasp of a language.

Many programs offer group or individual courses and arrange housing with local families.

A former colleague recently returned from the APPE Spanish Language School (, based in Antigua, Guatemala, which charges $90 for 20 hours of one-on-one lessons and up to $65 per week for housing with a local family, including three meals per day.

If you can spare a year or two, especially right after college, teaching English abroad is an easy way to learn another language and gain exposure to a different culture.

Embassy Web sites offer directories of language schools and in some cases teaching positions. You also can consult with foreign language departments at your alma mater for recommended programs.

Interchange: In Spanish, it's called an intercambio, a meeting in which you talk half the time in one language to your Spanish-speaking partner and half the time in the other language.

Since you split the time for instruction there is no cost, aside maybe from a cup of coffee.

You often can find students at local universities interested in language exchanges or go to to meet a partner or group online for free.

Films, music and amour: You can always sign up for a language course at a community college, watch foreign movies with subtitles and buy albums of local bands.

Even better, said Zweifel, the cross-cultural management professor, fall in love with somebody who speaks that language.

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at

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