Upon entering business school, it’s great if you are bilingual, fluent or even just conversational in a foreign language. But if, like so many Americans, you speak only English, should you begin studying a foreign language as soon as you enter graduate school for business? The answer will depend largely on your availability of time, inclination and where you hope your MBA will take you.
Demand is rising for business school graduates who are proficient in more than one language. As the global economy expands, so does the need for students with international business degrees and with knowledge of foreign cultures and practices. Even at home in the United States, knowledge of a language other than English can be an asset in businesses that employ foreign workers, do business abroad or employ domestic workers whose first language is something other than English. For those business students with a global bent, solid communication skills are key to success in foreign markets.
You should at least consider graduate school foreign language classes if you’re interested in concentrations such as international business, global finance or global management. These majors require an understanding of differing financial institutions, political systems, foreign cultures and of course, languages.
As you may already know, business graduate schools generally don’t require knowledge of a foreign language as a criterion for admission. Many, however, encourage you to learn a language during your business training. Likewise, most business graduate programs do not require proficiency in a foreign language as a condition of graduation. One notable exception is The Thunderbird School of Global Management, which has programs in some half dozen countries. It has been consistently ranked number one in international management by U.S. News and World Report and was recently ranked number one in international business by the Financial Times in its worldwide ranking of full-time business programs. Proficiency can be proven through a successful oral proficiency program or classes can be taken while students earn their degrees.
Many business schools that are part of larger universities, like Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, allow students to take foreign language classes as electives through the university. Others, like Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Columbia Business School, offer training through outside language programs designed for MBAs.
Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management encourages language training for international business majors, offering foreign language classes through the global language school, Berlitz. The Columbia Business School’s Chazen Language Program offers eight-week language programs designed to teach communication skills through conversation. The program, run by ABC Language Exchange, a private foreign language school operating in New York and San Francisco, offers a variety of language classes meant to complement the schedules of busy MBA. students at the school.
If you’re certain that global business is what you will pursue, you may want to consider a joint degree with international studies. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania offers a joint MBA/MA in International Studies, which focuses heavily on culture and foreign language graduate classes. Many of the business schools that are part of larger universities offer this type of joint degree program.
Ready to take the bull by the horns? You don’t have to wait to begin training in another language. Especially if you plan to attend business school but have not yet started, you may want to enroll in classes now. Courses are offered in every major language by reputable language schools such as Berlitz, ABC Language Exchange and local schools. You can choose classes, private instruction and even immersion courses that you can take before you begin studying for your MBA.
So what language should you study? From Arabic to Vietnamese, it depends, of course, on where you want to work and with whom you want to do business. You may not know this until you are well into business school. That’s okay, but it can’t hurt to start thinking about it now, since answering this question may help you find the right graduate school for you if you’re not already enrolled.
If you’re like many students who plan to specialize in global management, you may choose to attend a business school with study abroad or international internship opportunities that will give you hands-on exposure to a foreign culture and its language. If so, consider taking classes in the language of the country where you’d most like to study abroad.
Consider also that learning any of the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese) makes study and communication in the other Romance languages easier. French is widely spoken in European business and is the official language of many international organizations, including the United Nations. Spanish is the first language of the emerging markets of most of Central and South America, except Brazil, whose official language is Portuguese. Consider other important emerging markets of India (Hindi), the Middle East (Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi) and, of course, the mother of all emerging markets, China, where Mandarin is by far the most commonly spoken language (which, by the way, makes it the most spoken language in the world).
Regardless of the foreign language you already know or choose to study as a business graduate student, what’s certain is that knowledge of most any foreign language will provide you with proper context and communications for the business culture of other countries. What’s more, learning a language other than your own can even help you communicate better in your first language, a skill that will benefit any business career, near or far.