It didn’t take long for Chen Peng to realize that her language skills were not up to scratch. She already spoke English and Mandarin, but the Chinese MBA student needed to add another round of ammunition to her résumé.
Chen, then a Global MBA student at ESSEC Business School in France, sought a career with an international employer in her adopted nation. A good level of English language skills were a given – but fluency in French was also desired.
“I often had to interview in French and in English for the same company,” says Chen. “Similarly, although the official language of the company may be English, depending on the nature of the job you may end up speaking French day-to-day in the office.”
Two months ago she landed a job at Schneider Electric in Paris as a project manager in the transfer price division. Born and raised in China, she began her career in Shanghai, but sought a European MBA program to break into France.
Chen is not alone in her quest to curry favour with European employers. Learning multiple languages is a clever way to give your CV an edge. Bilingual qualities are prized among MBA recruiters, and many students are trying to become fluent in their business school’s native language.
The annual CBI-Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2014, to be released in July, reveals that 65% of firms identified a need for foreign language skills. The survey also points out that this is likely to increase as companies continue to expand into emerging markets.
The major European languages are in high demand from British businesses. The firms polled cited French (50%), German (49%) and Spanish (44%) as the most useful languages.
Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI, which speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses, says: “With the EU still our largest export market, it’s no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies.”
But there are signs of a shift towards languages used in the world’s fastest growing markets, such as Mandarin and Arabic, she adds.
More than 30% of firms cited Mandarin as useful, and 23% cited Arabic and a further 15% valued Japanese language skills. Even those companies which did not consider language skills beneficial still valued them for building relations with overseas contacts (28%).
Mark Anderson, managing director of Pearson UK, owner of the FT, says: “As a global company we understand that a company with employees who can communicate with some proficiency in the language of clients, customers and suppliers, has a big advantage in the fast-growing markets across the globe.”
Business schools are trying to equip MBA students with language skills to launch careers in Europe.
Schools such as IE Business School in Spain teach classes in both English and Spanish. For their spring 2014 MBA intake, 24% of the class opted for Spanish. They also offer an intensive four-week Spanish language program prior to the MBA, which is open to all students.
Alessia Di Domenico, IE's director of careers, education and advising, says it can be directly beneficial in students’ future careers. “By mixing between class groups, students also have greater opportunity to meet other peers and strengthen their networks for their professional future,” he adds.
ESADE Business School’s Spanish location is a boon for MBA students who want to ramp up their international language skills. Being based in Barcelona makes it a more engaging learning experience, says María José Verastegui, director of corporate partnerships at the school’s career services department.
The ESADE MBA is taught in English, but that doesn’t stop students developing a fluency in Spanish on the side. “For ESADE partners, the companies who recruit MBA students, it is very important to speak different languages,” adds María. “The majority of our MBA students speak two or three languages.”
English is the only language required to land a spot on HEC Paris’ MBA programs, but international students are required to take French language courses as part of their curriculum.
“Foreign languages skills continue to remain a desirable attribute for recruiters,” says Philippe Oster, director of communication, development and admissions at HEC Paris MBA.
“Companies are looking to expand and transfer into emerging markets, so graduates with… the ability to speak one or more foreign languages are highly valued.”
He adds: “Our graduates are often recruited by multinational companies… to act as ‘connectors’ between the global strategy and local implementation.”
But others warn that it requires additional hard work – on top of a rigorous business course. ESSEC's Global MBA program is taught in English but French foreign language courses at all levels are offered every semester.
“Multiple languages, such as French, English and another language, are considered an asset by many of the employers who recruit ESSEC graduates,” says Claire Gaudissart, ESSEC Global MBA’s career development manager.
Many think that bilingual graduates can look forward to richer rewards. English is the international language of business – but “other languages are highly valued, since MBA-level jobs are increasingly of an international reach”, says Alessia from IE.
They also give MBAs an advantage in the jobs market. “Without a doubt,” he adds. “… Either due to the need to deal with foreign clients, suppliers and other stakeholders from different countries.”
Only 35% of firms polled by the CBI and Pearson identified no need for foreign language skills. Most saw it as beneficial, although not absolutely essential for recruiters.
But Iain McLoughlin, director of career services at ESADE, says the global companies who recruit from the school expect their future leaders to have a working knowledge of a second language.
He adds: “Listening [to a firm’s team] in a foreign language is a demonstrable example of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.”
Philippe from HEC, one of France’s best business schools, suggests that transforming students’ working languages are one of their main areas of expertise. He points to Africa, which has a large French speaking population, as an area where HEC MBAs can establish themselves.
“Being able to work in other languages shows recruiters the ability to adapt to new environments and challenges,” he says. “An international outlook and understanding is crucial in carving out a successful business career,” adds Philippe.
Mandarin, the fourth most desirable language among employers, is seen as one of the most difficult to learn. Many recruiters in Shanghai and Hong Kong advertise jobs as “Mandarin mandatory”.
But Richard Bisset, from Shanghai-based CEIBS’ career development center, says that half of the school’s foreign students have successfully found employment in China with only basic Chinese language skills.
He admits Mandarin gives MBAs an advantage but its more "useful, but not essential. It remains possible to find non-Chinese speaking jobs in China".
But others say language skills are not enough on their own. Clare from ESSEC points out that learning a new language requires extra motivation and persistence – if you want to become fluent.
“But they’re not sufficient by themselves,” she says. “Combined with knowledge and experience in a specific sector, however, they definitely give a candidate a strong advantage.”