Thanks to the proliferation of advanced communications technology, international borders are rapidly dissolving in the professional world. American businesses are now focused on tapping massive emerging markets in China and India, and leaders in those markets have their eyes peeled for young talent who can immediately flourish in a foreign setting.
Given the increasingly international nature of the business world, the need for college students to learn a foreign language—particularly in-demand languages like Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic—is greater than ever, education experts say. "Fluency in a foreign language involves a skill set that is now very important to many employers, especially those who require their employees to travel overseas," says Kathy Mahnke, director of the Center for World Languages and Cultures at the University of Denver. "Being able to communicate in a colleague's native tongue helps business negotiations as well as social interactions with that colleague go much more smoothly than does working through a translator. There are just some cultural aspects of communication that do not translate well."
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Use these four tips to pick, and learn, a language that could prove beneficial to your career:
1. Choose an in-demand language: When conflict arises elsewhere in the world and a vast American presence is required there, demand for foreign language speakers rises dramatically. The past decade of conflict in the Middle East has spurred enormous demand for Arabic speakers to work in government or contracting roles. And schools are taking note—enrollment in Arabic courses has more than quadrupled at Tufts University in the past decade, for example.
Conflict isn't the only driver of demand for foreign language speakers, however. China and India, both with populations topping one billion, are burgeoning business markets. Being able to converse freely with professionals there can set students apart from their peers and allow them the opportunity to work with, or for, firms in the world's fastest growing markets. "With the growth of China, India, and Brazil, the U.S. will become one player—not the player—in the world economy," says Michelle Randall, the principal of Enriching Leadership International, a management consultancy. "Americans no longer have the luxury of staying mono-lingual."
2. Go above and beyond college requirements: For students not majoring in a foreign language, there is typically a minimal requirement, if any, that they take a foreign language. While many students are happy to dodge a potentially GPA-sapping foreign language class, that decision may not be in their best interests in the long term, education experts argue. "It is imperative that colleges and universities set the foreign language requirement at a level that would help students gain ability to communicate ably," says Mary Lynn Redmond, professor of education at Wake Forest University, which requires that all students take at least one foreign language class.
For business students, the more foreign language classes a student can fit into their schedule, the better, says Thomas J. Cossé, professor of marketing and international business at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business. "I believe that students should take more than the minimum required," he says. "I should note because English is the lingua franca of business, many believe that another language is not necessary. This is not so, because one is very limited in the ability to truly understand a different culture if one cannot speak the language of that culture."
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3. Immerse yourself: Many foreign language professors agree that immersion is the unparalleled method of absorbing another language. Students who want to learn a new language should take advantage of study abroad programs available to them during their college years to accelerate the process. "True language proficiency requires years of study beyond the minimum requirement and, ideally, time spent in the target language country," says Jennifer Redmann, associate professor of German at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "The more language students have before going abroad, the more their proficiency will improve in the target country."
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4. Take classes, not shortcuts: Widely publicized teaching tools like Rosetta Stone can help supplement your foreign language education, professors say, but shouldn't be a student's sole means of absorbing a language. While interactive tools are useful for memorizing vocabulary words, they're not as effective as learning the nuances of conversation as live, face-to-face instruction, says Redmond of Wake Forest.
Solveig Zempel, professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, agrees. "Tools such as Rosetta Stone and others certainly have a place for anyone who does not have access to formal instruction but needs to gain an introductory level of language fluency, but they are no substitute for classroom instruction with an experienced teacher," she says.
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