fluency is essential today in many jobs
By Andrea Coombes
Tucson, Arizona | Story published: 01.19.2004
Employees now in touch globally from their offices
English-only speakers will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage for a
growing number of U.S. jobs in coming years as employers ply global markets.
Being monolingual is about as American as football, but foreign-language
fluency is an increasingly significant asset, even for workers who never
intend to set foot in another country.
Cheaper communication technology is putting more employees in direct contact
with suppliers, customers and colleagues in foreign lands.
"You're likely to be in touch with people from all around the world, even if
you never leave your office," said Thomas D. Zweifel, chief executive of Swiss
Consulting Group, a New York-based cross-cultural coaching firm and author of
"Culture Clash" and "Communicate or Die."
Meanwhile, the explosive growth of Spanish-speaking residents within the
United States makes it likely that even the most basic jobs will require, or
at least be enhanced by, bilingual skills.
About one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home, and
the number of Spanish speakers rose 62 percent, to 28.1 million, in 2000 from
17.3 million in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"If you don't speak Spanish in the southern part of the U.S., you're basically
not marketable in the tourist trade," said Fariborz Ghadar, director of the
Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State University.
Transportation and manufacturing companies also often seek Spanish speakers.
"The important thing about speaking another language is it allows you to stand
in the shoes of that other culture and see the world from their point of
view," Zweifel said. "You really have to be cognizant of how your product will
That's been a hard-learned lesson for some. Microsoft's decision to have
Taiwanese programmers translate Windows software for sale in China backfired
when the programmers inserted pop-ups with phrases such as "take back the
mainland" and "communist bandits," Zweifel said.
The Chinese government decided to back Linux instead, jeopardizing Microsoft's
presence in a market of about 1.3 billion people, he said.
And Clairol's "Mist Stick" curling iron didn't sell well in Germany, where
"mist" means "manure." "It was an unfortunate term for a curling iron. No one
wanted to use the manure stick," Zweifel said.
As companies realize the need for foreign-language fluency, job seekers
without that skill may find themselves relegated to the status of also-ran.
"Most of the big corporations have applicant tracking systems," said Mark
Mehler, co-author of a directory of job Web sites, CareerXroads.com. "If they
need someone who speaks Spanish and you don't have it on your résumé, you're
not popping up. You don't pop up, you don't get hired."
Learning just about any language is likely to aid you in a job search, some
say, because job applicants can sell themselves by saying "I'm more
open-minded with a broader world view than a typical applicant," said Kevin
Donlin, president of Guaranteed Resumes.
* Job seekers eager to position themselves for coming economic shifts
should consider these languages:
"French is spoken in very large regions of Africa," said Thomas D. Zweifel,
chief executive of a cross-cultural coaching firm."The jury is still out on
Africa and whether Africa will become the kind of economy that is really
competing in the world. If it does, French will become more important again."
Mandarin Chinese, or Cantonese
"China is the fastest-growing consumer market in the world," Zweifel said.
Some estimates point to Chinese becoming the No. 1 Internet language by 2007,
he said. "We all think English will always be the number one language. It may
not be true," he said.
The third-largest consumer market by 2010, after China and India, will likely
be Brazil, Zweifel said. "Portugal is kind of a best-kept secret" in terms of
potential economic growth, Zweifel said, "but it's really Brazil which will
have incredible opportunities for people and for business."
Arabic or Farsi
"Language requirements change depending on what's going on in the world," said
Jill Sanborne, chief executive of MyCoolCareer.com, a site aimed at helping
teen-agers and young adults choose a career. Since 9/11, "there's been a need
for more Arabic and Farsi speakers."
An economic force in the European Union, Germany's language is increasingly
the second language of choice in places like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary,
"Most Eastern Europeans still speak Russian," Zweifel said. "It's still the
common language of the east bloc."
Combine more Spanish speakers within U.S. borders and this country's growing
trade with Mexico, and Spanish becomes the language to beef up your résumé.