Ask anyone working at a business school what makes it unique and you’ll get a spiel about global diversity. Yet companies are desperate for graduates who have honed multiple languages and cultural norms.
“Languages are always good for us,” says Julia McDonald, head of talent acquisition for EMEA at Infosys. English is the company’s common language, “but our clients often want people that can speak their local language,” Julia says.
Mark Davies, employer relations manager at London’s Imperial College Business School, says there is growing demand for multilingual European language speakers at companies including BP, GE, Johnson & Johnson, and GSK, which have operations in emerging markets.
André Alcalde, an executive at Lojas Renner, Brazil’s largest fast-fashion retailer, speaks English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.
“In a business world that is more internationally-connected,” says the HULT MBA student, “it is mandatory when building an executive career to be able to deal with different cultures.”
Nearly two-thirds of businesses in the UK want to recruit staff with foreign language skills. A survey by the business lobby group the CBI and education company Pearson found European languages are the most sought after: French (50%); German (49%); and Spanish (44%).
Amber Wigmore Álvarez, executive director of career services at Spain’s IE Business School, says that multinational businesses are continuously breaking free from physical geographies and defined markets. “For this reason, companies frequently demand bilingualism or multilingualism for key roles and promotion within a company,” she says.
Not speaking multiple languages could be a barrier to promotion, according to the British Academy’s Born Global research.
“We normally say English is a given, and another international language is required to be considered for international roles,” says Wendy Sleat, executive recruitment manager at Admiral, the FTSE 100 insurance group.
She adds: “We’re an international company so we need people who can work overseas.”
Julia Zupko, director of the Career Development Office at Yale School of Management, says there is less fuss about learning multiple languages in the US compared with Europe. “For companies operating in the US, it’s less of an expectation,” she says.
However, she adds that people working at multinational US companies can add value and distinguish themselves by being multilingual — “possibly increasing their chances for global positions or leadership roles”.
A survey of 419 US employers by the University of Phoenix Research Institute found that 70% expect Spanish language skills to be in high demand over the next decade; 42% cited Chinese.
Being able to speak Mandarin Chinese is a clear advantage at CEIBS in Shanghai, says Yvonne Li, director of MBA career services.
She says: “With the growing integration of the global economy, employers — especially those with reach — need talented individuals who can work in a multicultural environment and lead multicultural teams.”
Vinika Rao, executive director of the Emerging Markets Institute at INSEAD, anticipates demand for Chinese language speakers to grow alongside China's increasing investment in the Eurozone.
“We do see increased interest in hiring Chinese MBAs and international MBAs who speak the major Chinese languages,” she says.
Technologies like Google Translate can perform basic translation. And those who speak English have long been able to take advantage of the rest of the world’s desire to speak the accepted lingo of global business.
Yet there are more benefits to learning and speaking other languages. Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that people tend to make more rational decisions when speaking a second language. And foreign language leads to a reduction of biases in decision making, and could lead to better negotiation —multilinguals can view other people’s perspectives more easily.
“This is an essential ability that every good leader should have,” says Subhajit Mandal, a senior manager at life insurer MetLife, and NUS Business School MBA.
Some argue that time spent learning a language could be better spent acquiring other so-called “soft skills” demanded by employers. In particular, companies such as Microsoft and construction group Carillion are demanding critical thinking and leadership abilities in hires.
In countries where many languages and dialects are spoken, such as India, becoming multilingual could be even more of a burden.
Even so, the message emanating from global employers and business schools — despite the marketing spiel — is that multilingualism may give you an edge in your ascent to the executive suite.
“Our MBA participants speak four languages,” Julia de Vargas-Marquez, MBA career services manager at IMD, says. “Being multi-lingual offers a definite advantage when seeking employment.”