How useful is a foreign language?

Via Tim Worstall, this letter in The Guardian:

It was inspirational to read John le Carré’s timely piece on “Why we should learn German” (News). Through his personal narrative about learning German, he encapsulates so eloquently all the key motivations for learning languages: access to other cultures; curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.

The letter is written by a professor of modern languages, and it shows. In my experience, knowledge of a foreign language is one of the most overrated skills one is encouraged to acquire – unless it is English. It is ironic that it’s the monoglot UK which pushes this line, perhaps because those doing the pushing are unaware of the limitations. For instance, how much “meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners” has a professor of modern languages at the University of Belfast engaged in?

It is true that knowing a foreign language can build strong relationships and help greatly in understanding and learning about other cultures. But if this is a reason for Brits to learn Spanish, why is it not also the case for Germans, say? Why does everyone else get to learn English and stop there, uninterested in going any further? If Brits are being told they will struggle abroad, how does everyone else manage with just English and their (locally useless) native tongue?

The answer is that once you know English, you can do 90% of what you need; if that weren’t the case you’d see foreigners desperately trying to learn third and fourth languages, and generally you don’t. Once you know English, your time is better off spent learning something else.

I am far from fluent in Russian, but I can get by pretty well, especially in a social environment. When it comes to business my vocabulary lets me down, but I could learn it if I had an incentive. The trouble is, I don’t. Russian was incredibly useful when living in Russia but largely useless once I left. Sure, it is great to be able to go on the lash with a load of Russians (as I did in Baden-Baden two weeks ago) and not feel left out and learning about Russian history and culture simultaneously with the language was very rewarding in itself, but professionally it has been useless. The truth is, nobody is interested in whether I speak Russian, and this was the case even when I worked there. I have seen colleagues assigned to Russia and Azerbaijan and been utterly lost from Day 1, but never has their lack of language skills been a concern, and never has my language skill been seen as a reason to involve me in something. At best, my being able to speak Russian is seen as a mildly interesting piece of trivia, nothing more.

I believe that even if I were fluent this would be the case. From what I have seen, abilities in languages other than English are simply not rated highly by corporate managers and HR people, and come a long way down the list behind obedience, conformity, compliance, and simply having a face that fits. I know people fluent in languages working in giant multinational companies whose language skills lie idle, useful only when socialising or in the occasional restaurant. I have a friend in Paris who is fluent in English and also speaks Mandarin. She found Mandarin very useful in China, but since moving to Paris it simply isn’t required. Her employer, a huge multinational, is interested in her MBA and professional experience, not her language skills (other than English, of course).

Contrary to what the professor says, languages other than English are only mildly useful in the business world – everything gets done in English as soon as foreigners are involved. That’s not to say learning a language isn’t useful and rewarding, but the idea that doors will fly open as companies desperately seek to employ polyglot Englishmen is nonsense.

As is this, in my opinion:

These are precisely the reasons why languages matter so much to our future: they are crucial for building deep relationships across cultural differences, both globally and in communities around the UK, relationships that are game-changers for business, security and peace in an interconnected world.

Now obviously this professor is talking his own book, but learning a language is often a necessary but not sufficient step to building relationships with foreigners. In some instances, such as with Russians, the language isn’t even necessary. In my experience, Russians tend to get you blind drunk early on and “see what sort of a person you are” before trusting you with friendship. Although speaking their language certainly helps, your character is a lot more important. Turning up in Russia fluent but a slimy, untrustworthy prick isn’t going to get you far, and a monoglot foreigner they actually like will do a lot better.

I have known several expats here in France who believed the only thing preventing them being accepted into French social circles was the language barrier. A decade later they’re fluent, but still waiting for the dinner invitations. Shared culture and character are often far more important when building relations with foreigners than mere language skills.

Conclusive proof comes by looking at which nationalities do well internationally and establish business, cultural, and social relationships everywhere they go. Is it the famously multilingual Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians? Is it the serious dual-language Germans or Swedes? What about the sociable Spanish or Italians? No, it’s the hopelessly monolingual Americans and Brits. If knowledge of foreign languages is a key requirement in conquering the world commercially and culturally, nobody thought to tell the Anglo-Saxons.

My advice would be to encourage people to decide first which cultures they want to learn more about and which countries they want to live in, and start learning the languages that will help them with that. It probably won’t help their careers much, but it will make their cultural experience far deeper, more rewarding, and longer lasting. But the idea that “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is required is laughable. The time and money would be better spent acquiring skills people want to pay for.

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12 thoughts on “How useful is a foreign language?

  1. The only reason to learn another language, for business, is so that you get a grasp of what it is like for the foreigner struggling to understand your idiomatic English which sounds nothing like what they learned in their school.

    On the other hand, if you want to actually live in a place, get a girl/boyfriend there, make friends with the locals, not get ripped off or taken advantage of by people thinking your a dumb foreigner then you should learn that language. In general getting a horizontal dictionary will help this process enormously because she (or he if you’re someone who likes men) will a) correct your stumbling attempts, 2) introduce you to a bunch of locals who probably have limited English and iii) get you out of the foreign enclave where everyone speaks at least some English. You don’t need fluency for this. About 1000 words and broken grammar will do.

    Unless you are remarkably prescient, you will not learn the language you need to learn to get laid in school. But I do think it is worth studying one there so that you get the concept of grammar etc. that isn’t English

  2. My current firm work in ten countries and price in several others and English is the only contractual of technical language spoken or corresponded in as far as project execution goes. It was the same in previous life’s in many other countries too. I still admire folk that make the effort to learn the language of a country they are a guest in though. I am hopeless like that and still struggle with English, probably a bit lazy of me on that score.

  3. I spent most of my working life in Spanish speaking countries working with all levels of educated locals. I found it very useful to be able to communicate in the local language although there are huge grammar and slang differences between the various Latin countries.

  4. Was it Tim or Jake Barnes who wrote about oral business English being a different thing for native speakers?

  5. Was it Tim or Jake Barnes who wrote about oral business English being a different thing for native speakers?

    Tim I think.

  6. I learned French (not particularly well – O-level grade 5!) at school. Subsequently I have done business in France (in English) & visited as a tourist, so my French did improve, but it’s definitely not fluent. That said, I do feel more comfortable in France than, say, Spain or Germany because I can converse to a greater degree. I was in a shop in Le Touquet a few years ago, helping my wife buy some stuff, and was surprised to be complimented on my French by the shopkeeper. I don’t think he was being facetious.

  7. The frogs can be a bit snippy now it’s not the lingua franca-
    Multinationals will choose Englsih for management meetings.
    Dealing with the labouring guys is best done show and tell rather than learn some dialect.

    OTOH
    Police and military sure don’t want show and tell.
    Some outfits, PR, sales & marketing etc still value language skills because even if you’re not assigned to the country you are assumed to have some understanding of a different culture.

  8. Opportunity costs….. The world langauge is English. (Used to work for a multinational insurer leading the European direct to SME business (small with big target). Germans, Poles, Swiss, Spanish, Slovenians amongst many other nations in my virtual team. Never a meeting in anything other than English and that wasn’t because I was in the room. All specifications were in English so the Indians doing the IT could understand. Only the final customer contracts were in local language. )

    What counted was accuracy in language and native English speakers sometimes didn’t have that core skill. Misunderstanding costs money but your average English office gets by with huge unspoken differences lingering on for ages. Amazing really.

    The time spent learning French is time that isn’t spent learning something else. Yes you get to appreciate France’s depth and complexity better but it tells you nothing of Germany let alone China. Hell we don’t understand the US and they have the same core language.

    Why we don’t train people in langauge structure and grammar I don’t know. The Gove curriculum does this and should hopefully bear fruit with more precise and accurate English. Learning Mandarin might be good for middle class kids to boast but a lifetime of dedication to get fluent is wasted compared to the advantage from critical thinking skills.

    (Confession – I am a native English and reasonable Romanian and passable French speaker who insists on kids learning anothe or langauge for the *structure* it gives them in communicating. That and speaking to the in-laws)

  9. “Only the final customer contracts were in the local language.”

    At a meeting in Madrid to buy out a local partner, we were presented with the termination agreement in Spanish and English. As I was looking through my copy I could see differences between the two versions. The English version had been prepared in the UK by the company legal officer and the Spanish one by the local office of one of the big accounting companies. A rapid rewrite of the Spanish version saved the company nearly 1 million Euros, to the disgust of the ex partner.

    Sometimes it’s good to be fluent.

  10. I don’t mind at all if anyone chooses to learn English or Hindi / Urdu or any other language, but I would like to argue the case for wider use of Esperanto, particularly for people who do not yet have a specific language need. Esperanto is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in about twenty countries over recent years. I recommend it to any traveller, as a way of making friendly local contacts.

    I hope you will allow me to add that Esperanto continues to attract new learners and speakers. Nearly a million people have signed on for the Duolingo Esperanto course in its first two years.

  11. I got my first job in IT because the interviewer was impressed that I could speak 2 foreign languages, so for me it was very useful

  12. We were in a small creperie in Finisterre a couple of weeks ago, listening to a conversation between a German, a Parisian (or, at least, the Head Office rep who nominally worked in Paris) and a local. The conversation was in reasonable English. The only French spoken was from the Parisian to the waitress.

    The only time I’ve ever had problems in business was, a couple of decades ago, with the French IT Director of a German bank (in Frankfurt.) But he’d already decided that the damn-Anglos weren’t going to get the business (he was under what, at the time, was a quite common delusion that I worked for Sun Microsystems), so it was only an excuse. If I’d known in advance, the CEO of our German partner would have come with me.

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