To say today’s business world is a global marketplace is more than an understatement. So it is important for businesspeople traveling and meeting international clients to know a foreign language. While English is spoken in many major cities, it is always a plus to conduct business in the language of your client or colleague. This is exactly what Stephanie Hunt decided to do when she made the move to China to open an office of her business etiquette firm Swan Noir in Asia.
“I started studying in 2011 when I decided to grow my business in Asia. I went to Shanghai to study for a month in 2011 and 2012. I supplemented my study in NYC by hiring a private tutor and studying at China Institute and Confucius Institute for Business,” she says.
Learning a new language is not as difficult as you might think. There are various online courses and schools dedicated to adult language learning. “To work abroad, you need to speak the language that gives you the most social relevance, but allows you to communicate about concrete issues. In a developing country that normally translates into a little of an official language and a little in a local language,” explains Jacob Cullen, CEO of Language Link, Lda, which teaches English to professionals in Cape Verde. Cullen, an American who relocated to the African island nation, too had to learn Portuguese and the native Creole. According to Cullen, not only does learning the language of your clients help create a better working relationship, it also helps in clarifying details. “First, you connect with your client on a personal level using a language they grew up speaking and then close with the official language to leave no doubts,” says Cullen, whose company has branched out to develop a blended learning course online where professionals all over the world can study English.
For Hunt, it also helped to immerse herself in the culture. “I just moved to Shanghai this past March 2013 and will be doing some business at the end of May. I continue to study language in Shanghai and by living there it has been a lot easier to pick up on tones and more vocabulary. You can learn only so much from a textbook. By putting myself in certain situations, I am forced to learn,” she notes. “A balanced way of learning is important as well. I am also taking a Chinese cooking class. I do plan to go to study Chinese history later…If you know the language, understand the people, know how they live, participate in their social events and know what they like, then it makes business easier. Relationships are key in Asia. It’s called Guanxi. You have to eat with people, drink, do karaoke, talk about friends, family, your home country and your background.
Hunt is also translating all of her business material into Mandarin. “I have a business card with Chinese printed on the back explaining what I do in Chinese characters, I have a Chinese name (Han Hui Yi), I live in a Chinese apartment building, and I have Chinese friends,” says Hunt. She also says it was important to connect with expats in the country to help show her the ropes.
So what languages to take? First, start with the countries you do business in the most. And according to Bloomberg Rankings, Mandarin Chinese is the most useful language for business after English. Mandarin is spoken by 845 million people in what is the world’s second-largest economy, China. In second place is French, followed by Arabic. Spanish ranked fourth. After this came Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Italian, Korean, and Turkish.