As someone who speaks 16 languages and has had a successful business career, language learners often ask me: if I learn another language, what can I do with it? What is the relationship between languages and work or a career?
The biggest benefit of speaking languages I’ve seen in my career is that it increased the opportunities that came my way. You do have to have other things working for you too, of course. You have to have other skills, like knowledge of a specific sector or market, the ability to do business and the ability to be a reliable, energetic person in any number of fields.
In my own case, there’s no question that leaving Montreal as an Anglophone, studying in France for three years then writing my Canadian Diplomatic or Foreign Service Exam in French helped me be selected into the Canadian Diplomatic Service. So here’s a profession where languages count. They want people who are fluent, at the very least, in the two official languages of Canada. Writing the Foreign Service Exam in French as an Anglophone probably put me in a select group, so I had a better chance of being selected.
When I was in Ottawa in my year-end training with the Trade Commissioner Service, I heard that the government was preparing to send someone to learn Chinese for a position in Hong Kong. I wanted to be selected for the role, so I started taking Chinese lessons on my own. My aim was to go to the director of personnel and say: I hear you want to send someone to learn Chinese because Canada is about to recognize the People’s Republic of China. I’ve already started; I just want you to know that.
I wrote the English Foreign Service exam after a year of study from 1968 to 1969, and then worked in Hong Kong and China promoting Canada’s trade interests and helping Canadian business people. I first visited Beijing in October of 1970. I am glad I did. It was a different place than now.
I was subsequently posted to Japan, where I picked up Japanese quite quickly. I made a lot of contacts in the forest product sector while working at the Embassy in Tokyo, so when a Canadian company needed someone to set up their representative subsidiary, I was given the job. Obviously, my knowledge of Japanese enabled me to communicate at various levels in the Japanese lumber trade sector, and not just those trading company people who spoke English, but a wide variety of people.
The next major language learning spurt for me was 1987. I had been hired by a company that did business in Europe and I so I decided to learn German. I spent a month scouring the secondhand book stores in Vancouver finding books that had text and vocabulary lists for each chapter because I just didn’t want to look every word up in the dictionary. There were no online dictionaries, so I found a whole pile of excellent books and audio cassettes for learning German and did a lot of listening and reading.
Well, it turned out that in the 1990s I did a fair amount of business in Germany. We were selling wood from Canada into Germany and so I had visitors from Germany and I traveled in the country. Once you got past the main lumber agents, a lot of the consumers, wood processors and different customers for our products were much more comfortable speaking German than speaking English. I think it helped me do business there.
Thereafter, we started doing business in Sweden, which became a big supplying country for us, and so I again started learning Swedish. I had some background in the language because I was born there and lived there for five years. I had forgotten Swedish, but then I spent a summer there as a 16-year-old and decided I’m really going to learn this language. Again, I got lots of audio books and textbooks.
I ended up doing a fair amount of business in Sweden, and I think I had better relations and developed a better relationship of trust with my suppliers because I spoke Swedish. When we had meetings and they wanted me to explain the Japanese market to them in front of their production people, the fact that I was able to explain what the customers’ requirements were, the market and how it was structured in Swedish definitely helped.
When I set up my own company in Vancouver, we did some business in Spain in the early days. I was able to contact people via the phone and had some Spanish customers come through, so being able to speak Spanish certainly helped. We have a very good customer in France with whom I speak French exclusively. My business, once I set it up, was primarily marketing to Japan, so the biggest payback was my Japanese language skills, which helped me develop a market position there.
Knowing more languages increases the number of opportunities that are going to come your way. It increases your opportunity to connect with people and understand them better. You never know which languages are going to come in handy and when.