Updated on October 25, 2012
Why Learning Foreign Languages is Good for You
I read a lot of articles on sustainability and how (in a corporate/business environment), one has to be able to translate sustainability theory and practice into various different business languages. This skill is something I try to improve upon on a daily basis. The skill is important because we still live in a time where sustainability in many companies is considered a “nice to have”, not exactly the number 1 goal. Being able to speak sustainability or other aspects of science to people who speak finance, law, advertising, marketing, supply chain, logistics, etc. in THEIR language is something that goes a long way when trying to make your point and/or make a business case for a project.
Bottom line: Know your audience and speak to them in words they understand.
Using this methodology, and considering the rapid progress of globalization – how will sustainability be translated not only to other languages within a single company, but to other companies that don’t speak your actual language (in my case, English)? By now we all know about China’s rapidly expanding economy and impact on the world in many ways – like environmental technology. We also know about Brasil’s booming economy since it recently took over the U.K. as the 6th largest economy in the world. Brasil also provides a large portion of the world with a large portion of coffee, sugar cane, and beef. Africa is getting more attention as a growing continent with a lot to offer in terms of a rapidly growing middle class, equating to expanding industries like manufacturing and retail commerce.
As the world becomes more affluent, we will put more pressure on our natural resources to sustain the growing demand for food (particularly meat), water, energy and myriad material things that require resources to produce. In order to curtail any disasters, sustainability practices need to be incorporated into business decisions and into our daily lives. We’ve only got one planet to live on so far – we’ve got to keep it around for a while.
Learning other languages – like Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese, Arabic, and even French (English and French dominate Africa outside of native languages) – will give a person a clear advantage in the international sustainability field. Some of these languages are among the hardest to learn (for an English speaker). Wikipedia says:
“The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages for their professional staff (native English speakers who generally already know other languages). Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and reading, requiring 88 weeks (2200 class hours), are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. The National Virtual Translation Center notes that Japanese is typically more difficult to learn than other languages in this group, while the Foreign Service Institute makes this statement about Korean.”
Staying focused on the U.S. and one’s own business is all well and good, but the world will increasingly become interdependent, and knowing more than one language is going to be increasingly important not just in sustainability, but in any business. Teaching your kids, and yourselves, another language can go a long way in your career regardless of if it has to do with sustainability or not. Aside from a business advantage, breaking out of the common American mindset that English is the only language one would need to know, and expecting everyone else to conform to America’s ways is naive and will not help us advance in the increasingly competitive world.
To succeed in getting people to understand what you want them to do, you need to speak their language – literally.