“Culture and language are difficult to separate in international business. Language is the vehicle for culture; cultural values are reflected in the language spoken. Cultural facility increases familiarity between negotiating partners, which thereby increases trust; language may simply be a business tool or may additionally serve to increase trust. But – crucially – language is a tool, while culture is not: parties cannot transact in a culture; they must transact in a language.”
— “International business complexity and the internationalization of languages” W. Travis Selmier II and Chang Hoon Oh in Business Horizons (2012) 55, 189-200
After stumbling across a response that Michael Geisler, an administrator at the Middlebury Language Schools, made to a claim by Larry Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury, that Americans will have no real need to spend the time and energy to master a foreign language in the future, this Business Horizons published study authored by W. Travis Selmier II and Chang Hoon Oh, immediately came to mind. They found that a shared language was a factor contributing to trade and investment choices by companies and countries across the globe. Rather than accept English as the lingua franca of business, it appears that fostering a variety of language competence is critical to global functioning.
A recent Financial Times article “What is the second most useful language?” further introduces the idea that the cultural understanding often embedded in mastering a language many benefit a person beyond straightforward verbal exchanges.
What are your thoughts on language study for business? Have you ever been in a situation where learning a foreign language contributed to business success? Is language learning outdated and impractical, or is it vitally important with subtle and priceless benefits?