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Gen X Goes to Work Abroad

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Learn Another Language—Or Five

English has long been the lingua franca of the business world but to work in the international marketplace, being multi-lingual is increasingly important.  

Besides English, French and Spanish are the most valuable languages in the business world today. So says a survey by global recruiting firm Robert Half Finance & Accounting. Some 1,550 Human Resource and Financial directors were polled in nine countries throughout Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand.  

"The survey clarified how important languages are in the workplace, how really important they are," said Ian Graves, Robert Half's District Director for continental Europe. "Without a doubt, there is an international attitude emerging in clients we're doing business with. There are a lot more people moving across borders." 

After English, French ranked first, with 28 percent of respondents citing it as one of the most valuable languages to know while Spanish was a close second with 24 percent. Nearly 17 percent of respondents said German was the most important language to speak after English.  

"If you wanted to make advances from a career point of view, French would probably be the first language you would choose," said Graves.  

Anne Loes Uding, a Dutch sales representative, agrees that knowing French can be a major asset. Speaking fluent French helped land her a job with Dell in Amsterdam. The fact that she speaks five other languages also helped her to stand out. Besides French and her native Dutch, Uding also speaks English, Spanish, German and Italian.  

"I make that my unique selling point," she said. "Business is becoming more international so I figured that would be a good niche for me. When you go for an interview, people will remember you as the person who can speak six languages."  

In the globalized business environment, multilingualism is essential, said Valerie Koreman, a senior executive with an employment agency in The Hague.  

"When you work for an international company, you really need to speak at least three European languages," she said.  

Along with the benefits to one's job marketability, speaking another language is in keeping with a growing international attitude in the business world.  

"It's really refreshing that there is more emphasis on exchanges of different cultures," said Graves.  

English is likely to keep its place as the essential language in the international business world. However, connecting with clients and colleagues in their native language can not only enrich the relationship but allow for a competitive advantage.  

John Pfeiffer is Europe's managing director of AIRINC, an International HR consulting firm. Pfeiffer is from the United States but worked in Germany for five years. There, speaking fluent German often helped ease the path to establishing contacts and building relationships.  

"It's more than just the mechanics of expressing an idea," said Pfeiffer. "It conveys that you are more on somebody's wavelength than if you are translating back and forth." 

Now working in Brussels, Pfeiffer has noticed some limitations on the way he is able to do business because he is still learning French. Though Belgians are widely known for their multi-lingual abilities, Pfeiffer is studying French to gain the same advantages he had in Germany.  

Pfeiffer recalled a meeting with a new French contact which was originally expected to take place in English. But when the French speaker learned that Pfeiffer's colleague spoke fluent French, it became the dominant language of the meeting. 

"We had a better meeting and have had a better business relationship," he said.  

Latin languages may be important to speak in the business world today but that could also be changing.  

Some 38 percent of respondents to the Robert Half survey said they expect Chinese to become the most valuable business language — besides English — in the coming years.  

That doesn't surprise Hilly van Swol-Ulbrich, a culture trainer with the German-based Consultus.  

She has seen the trend toward doing business in China first hand. In her many trips there, she has noticed that Chinese senior managers often do speak English and German. But to develop a trusting business relationship, speaking the local language can be even more important than it is in Europe.  

"Most of the business world relies on relationship building and relationship building relies on communication," she said.  

The China explosion doesn't mean one should necessarily start studying Chinese as soon as possible.  

"To improve you career, don't bother with Chinese. Honestly, it is way too difficult," said van Swol-Ulbrich. "It's not one of these, nice to have, looks good on my resume [languages]."  

"If you are interested in expanding your horizons, picking up on the opportunities that are lying about in China and are willing to work hard and be successful, I would say the Chinese language is something you really want to invest time in. In order to be more compatible in a Western Europe, I don't think so." 

Jennifer Hamm is a freelance journalist based in the Netherlands. She has lived in 11 cities, five countries and three continents.

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