Why speaking English is simply not enough when doing business internationally

English might be the lingua franca of business in Europe, but if you use this fact as an excuse to avoid having to learn a language, you may actually loose out on a lot, as Gabriella Ferenczi explains.

Have you ever thought that, as an English speaker, you don’t really need to learn the language of your colleagues or existing or potential business partners? Everyone who wants to do business internationally speaks English, so why bother? If so, then please read on as you may miss an important point. I’d like to show you some real life examples where speaking only a few words in the language of your business counterparts can actually make or break a relationship.

Is it really the case that English speakers don’t have to learn another language because everyone else speaks theirs? The international role of English in the business world brings certain benefits but we should not forget about the drawbacks of being dependent on the goodwill of others speaking our language. Willy Brandt, the former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany once famously said:

“If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. But if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German].”

Willy Brandt

As Gabrielle Hogan-Brun points it out in her new book Linguanomics, sales are more likely when consumers can get information about a product or service in their own language. For that, you or your people need to make the effort and learn the language of your business partners.

“A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report on how cultural and language barriers affect business confirms that effective cross-border communication and collaboration are critical for the financial success of companies with international aspirations. Executives interviewed from across the world stated that better communication with customers and colleagues abroad benefits their company’s profit, revenue and market share. In fact, around half of the respondents admit that misunderstandings have stood in the way of major cross-border transactions …”
Gabrielle Hogan-Brun: Linguanomics

The courtesy factor is key in any country or culture you do business with, and for that, ‘soft skills’ are vital. Now, the good news is that these soft skills are relatively easy to achieve.

Meeting and greeting clients, partners, colleagues, wishing them a lovely weekend, having a drink in the bar and being able to converse with them, and generally speaking the ability to understand certain cultural norms and habits are extremely important for establishing trust and understanding. These soft skills can directly contribute to long-lasting business relationships, better client retention and improved competitive position. Many business people would expect to conduct meetings with foreign clients in English, for understandable reasons. However, if you can speak to people in their language during breaks, then they will see you in a very different light. 

Anyone appreciates it when someone has bothered to learn their language or at least made the effort;  it sends out a signal that they are important to you, they really matter, and that definitely helps with building better relationships.

To get to the level where you’d be comfortable in these social situations is actually not too difficult at all. Starting from scratch, it takes about 20-30 coaching sessions to get the absolute basics in terms of language and culture right. A further 20 coaching sessions would dig a little deeper and give you a more thorough understanding and background, and another 20 sessions would set you on a course from which point you’d be able to express yourself in a basic way and participate in social situations with relative ease. These are average numbers, as a lot depends on the language and culture you’re studying and of course the commitment and effort you put into your programme but that can be positively influenced given the right environment.

Now, we’d love to hear from you.

Can you share stories and situations where your language and intercultural skills (or the lack of it) really made or broke a deal?

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