Given our globalized reality, you’ve probably considered learning another language if you’re involved in business. After all, what better way to close a deal than to speak to a prospective partner in their native tongue? It sets them at ease, and it makes you stand out.
So, what’s the best way to learn a language for business? The obvious next step is to enroll in a business language course like Business French or Business Mandarin—with the word “business” in the title, you can’t go wrong. Right? Ninety days of Business German and you’ll be ready to open your own brewery in Berlin.
Not quite. What’s “business language,” anyway? Business language programs serve an extremely specific purpose: facilitating commerce.
Business language courses often focus on economics, trade and law. They teach students how to give presentations, compose emails, set up calls and attend meetings. Select courses have also begun to introduce cultural awareness modules that educate students on country-specific etiquette.
The specifics of business vocabulary vary depending on the industry, but students can generally expect to learn how to apply for a job and complete the interviewing process; how to launch a product, design a multistage advertising campaign and complete a functional market analysis; how to present ideas to coworkers and supervisors in meetings; and how to communicate competently via email.
In comparison, traditional language-learning programs focus on more general topics, such as family, school, weather and helpful phrases for tourists. Traditional programs are more concerned with thoroughness than efficiency; they aren’t afraid to take their time introducing students to abstract concepts and deconstructing grammar rules. People hoping to learn a language solely for economic purposes may find themselves frustrated at the lack of immediate application. Then isn’t the business version of a language enough? Learning a business language definitely has its advantages. For one, it’s approachable. These courses aren’t necessarily designed for linguaphiles who want to absorb the nuances of their target language; they’re designed for busy people who want an efficient route to commerce. Furthermore, in business courses, you spend less time on convoluted grammar rules and more time on vocabulary that you can actually use in the boardroom.
The downside? Most business occurs outside of the boardroom.
While business languages courses are great for learning what to say during a meeting, they don’t show you what to do before and after that meeting. They often omit the vocabulary necessary to make engaging small talk, arrange social functions and build relationships.
Knowing how to say “long-term investments” in Amharic won’t help you make polite conversation with a prospective Ethiopian business partner inclined to chat about politics or family. This extends to networking events as well—you’ll have a hard time building lasting, profitable partnerships if you don’t have the vocabulary to ask about someone’s hobbies or children. Repeating the Swedish word for “advertisement” will only get you so far.
Furthermore, international business opportunities may require you to travel to or even live in another country. To function independently, you’ll have to know how to order food and arrange taxis—at the bare minimum. And if you’re working abroad, you’ll need to know how to carry a conversation so that you can chat with your co-workers after you clock out. What’s the best way to learn a language for business? The best solution lies at the crossroads of business language-learning and traditional language-learning: practical application-centered learning. This is where you focus primarily on words and phrases that have the most direct application to your life. While this includes the complicated business vocabulary that you’ll need in the boardroom, it also includes the vocabulary that you find yourself using most often on a daily basis.
Practicality and efficiency are key. If you can’t use it, don’t learn it.
If you’re not sure where to begin, then carry a notebook around with you for a week. Take note of topics that come up frequently in the English-language portion of your business dealings. What do people chat about at networking events? What do you find yourself conversing to local clients about before and after meetings? What conversation topics arise most often with your coworkers?
Next, think about your own interests and hobbies, and record relevant vocabulary so that you’ll have an exciting topic to delve into when building new relationships.
While you’ll have to tweak this list slightly to fit your international needs, it gives you a good starting point when deciding what vocabulary topics to focus on.
While you’re at it, stream films and TV shows created in the country you want to do business in. Don’t just watch Anglophone shows that have been translated into your target language, but seek out cinema from the country itself. These films and shows reflect core values of the society. They feature native speakers and accurate depictions of your target language. They will introduce you to popular references that you can utilize in your own conversations; invoking references and even being able to parse slang will set you apart as someone who values the culture itself and not just the economic opportunities it provides.
Use these strategies in addition to taking a business language course. For every business vocabulary list that you pore over, teach yourself a few words from your practical list and an expression you’ve picked up from television. And regularly review a few core grammar rules; they will make recalling vocabulary and holding a conversation much easier. What are the best languages to learn for business? Now that you know how to learn a language, what language should you learn?
Mandarin Chinese, the most spoken language in the world, has been called “the business language of the future.” With over one billion native speakers, it eclipses English at a 2:1 ratio. China has the world’s second-largest economy, and it’s growing at an astounding pace. The downside? Chinese is notoriously difficult for English-speakers to learn, requiring 2,200 hours to reach proficiency.
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, and the Middle East is booming in the oil, construction and real estate industries. The downside? The wide variety of Arabic dialects makes it difficult to master the language—the Arabic spoken in the United Arab Emirates is vastly different from the Arabic spoken in Egypt, for example. This means you’ll have to begin your studies knowing exactly what country you want to focus on.
Spanish has more than 420 million native speakers and is an official, national or widely spoken language in forty-four countries. The United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world after Mexico, so learning Spanish can expand your business opportunities in the US as well. By 2050, the Hispanic population of the US is expected to reach 30%, and their buying power is regularly increasing. Plus, as a close cousin of English, Spanish is relatively easy to learn, requiring only 600 hours. Business extends beyond the boardroom. To truly succeed in business, you need more than just the economic basics—you need to be able to hold conversations and build relationships with the people you hope to work with. So while a business course is a great place to start, complement it with everyday vocabulary, and you’ll be closing deals in no time.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.