Languages And International Business: Which Languages Make You More Employable

December 2, 2011 by totalityservices

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Knowing a rare or less–used language has traditionally been considered as a resume advantage, a way to edge out the competition within the ever-shrinking jobs pool. But what do recruiters really think about the languages we know (or claim to know?)

A spread of languages will undoubtedly make reading your CV more interesting. Experienced recruiters know that to learn another language is to embrace another culture – language provides insights into cultural mind-sets, perspectives and priorities, aptly described by Guy Deutscher in his book, “Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World”. Any business would see this as an advantage to their end of the negotiating table, particularly when broking an international deal.

The sad truth is that there are very few professional opportunities for rare languages. Recruiters that I interviewed from London, Brussels, New York and Singapore agreed that outside the language industry, qualifications are given more weight when it comes to hiring– the language factor tips the scale where two candidates are evenly matched, but only when the language is relevant to the business. “Knowing a rare language or two will definitely make me want to have a conversation with you, but hire you? I’m not so sure.” says one City recruiter.

New York and Singapore concurred. “When it comes to the language factor, employability depends on the relevance of the languages you do know, and the level to which you can communicate in these languages.”

So what languages make you more employable? In his article on “Top Languages”, linguist George Weber came up with a points-based formula to rank the world’s ten most influential languages. The formula was based on six criteria:

Criterion Max. points
Number of primary speakers

4

Number of secondary speakers

6

Number and population of countries using the language

7

Number of major areas of human activity in which the language is important

8

Economic power of countries using the language

8

Socio-literary prestige of the language (plus an additional point for being an official UN language)

4

Based on Weber’s formula, the top 10 most influential languages in the world are:

Language Points
English

37

French

23

Spanish

20

Russian

16

Arabic

14

Chinese

13

German

12

Japanese

10

Brazilian Portuguese

10

Hindi/Urdu

9

The rankings may have slightly changed, but from the recruiters’ point of view these languages remain attractive, particularly to businesses trying to penetrate emerging markets in the BRICs countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). And the trade goes both ways.

The real advantage may however be in knowing languages closer to home. Eurostat data for 2010 shows that within the EU, English is by far the foreign language of choice for the majority of students at all levels of education, followed by French, German, Russian and Spanish.

But while the rest of the EU is building up its language portfolio, the UK (along with Ireland) has consistently ranked lowest for the average number of foreign languages learned per student. Britain may well be losing its competitive advantage in the international jobs market, though not for the lack of demand. It has reached the point where the European Commission issued a press release called “English, a rare language?” given that it is facing a serious shortage of native English interpreters over the next five to ten years.

Being a native English speaker with a second influential language is definitely an advantage, but sometimes it’s not enough. “I’m already quite impressed when someone knows two languages,” admits a City-based head hunter. “But for my colleague in Brussels, where two languages are a requirement, sometimes it’s the third language that gives you an edge in a close deliberation.”

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