Is it worth learning another language for business?

Learning a foreign language for business

As we slowly make our way towards Brexit, I’ve been wondering what will happen to the status of the English language within Europe.

Currently, each member state has to notify one official language to the EU. Because Ireland has notified Gaelic and Malta has notified Maltese, Britain is currently the only country to notify English. In other words, post-Brexit, English may well lose its status as one of the official languages of the European Union.

Whatever happens, there’s no denying that the UK is a largely monolingual culture. Only 5% of pupils learn two or more languages at school, compared to 99% in France, 59% in Germany and 23% in Italy. Three quarters of people in the UK can’t even hold a basic conversation in another language.

Being only able to speak one language has major implications for business. It’s something that hit home a few years ago when I was invited to Munich to work on a major project with an advertising agency. Although I’d learned German at school, I had barely read or spoken a word of it since my GCSE exam over 20 years earlier. Even asking for directions was a challenge.

Although my time in Munich was productive, I felt I could have made more of the opportunity if I did speak German. If I spoke German, surely that would give me a better chance of working with more firms over there?

When I got back, I decided to brush up on my language skills. Since then I have attained a decent level of fluency in French, am rapidly improving my German and just for the fun of it, taught myself basic Italian last year (although I have already forgotten much of it – more on that later).

But my point is that, with upcoming changes in the EU, learning other languages is a no-brainer if you want to explore more business opportunities with other countries – it gives you the edge over competitors who speak only English.

The question is, as a busy person, how do you get to be proficient in another language as quickly as possible? These are my top tips based on my experience over the last few years.

Language learning strategies


  1. Start with languages you are most familiar with

This may seem like strange advice, especially if you want to learn Italian for business and are only familiar with Spanish. However, I think the best decision I made was to put my effort into the language I knew most of (French). The sense of achievement I felt as I quickly improved my skills gave me more confidence to move on to other languages. Also, by then I had learned the habits and techniques of language learning – and these are skills you can apply to any tongue.

  1. Don’t bother with textbooks

When I was at school, I thought textbooks were a dreadful method of learning a language. Rather than pore over grammar and worrying about making mistakes, you really need to start using your chosen language as quickly as possible. If you like the comfort of learning from a book, though, there are much better options out there. I particularly recommend Paul Noble’s books: I have read ‘Unlocking French’ and ‘Unlocking German’, and both can get you speaking your chosen language quickly, largely through making use of what you already know.

  1. Use the web and make it fun

There are so many language learning websites and apps out there these days, you are bound to find one that suits your learning style. The best one to begin with is Duolingo, which makes learning languages a rather addictive game. The smartphone app is good and helps you fit in learning during your breaks but you will learn more from the website as you have to type out words from memory rather than simply press buttons.

I’ve also used Babbel to learn French and found it good, though this is a subscription service. Another must-have app is Anki – this is a powerful flashcard app that can use audio, video and pictures as well as text and you can benefit from the many thousands of free flashcard sets that other people have compiled.

  1. Use what you’ve learned

This is important: start putting your new language skills to work as soon as possible. I did this in a number of ways when I learned French. For reading, I revisited the Asterix books and worked my way up to reading novels and short stories by first choosing translations of books I already knew back-to-front, such as 1984, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and even Three Men on a Boat. The Amazon Kindle app is also brilliant because it will translate unfamiliar words for you if you press on them. Reading news websites in your chosen language is also a good way of practising.

However, there’s nothing better than using your language with a native speaker. If you are lucky enough to have friends who speak it, then you’re sorted. If you’re not, I recommend an app called Speaky – it puts you in touch with native speakers across the globe, and you basically help each other out by conversing in each other’s languages.

  1. Do at least a little every day

Practise your new language a little every day – this is what really makes it stick and helps you improve. Spend as much time as you can while enjoying what you’re learning, even if you can only find five or ten minutes some days. The reason I have forgotten so much of the Italian I learned last year is that I haven’t practised it for months.

  1. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

I make mistakes all the time, but it’s all part of the learning process. If I’d worried about making mistakes, I’d still be resolutely monolingual – but because I’ve learned languages only in ways that I’ve found enjoyable, I’ve come a much longer way than I ever did at school.

So, why not try out some of the tips above? It may not have swung the deal, but one of my biggest clients is now based in Europe and hires many French and German speakers. Being able to use their languages even a little cements our relationship and helps build a better business relationship for the future.

Good luck (or rather, ‘bonne chance’ or ‘vielGlück’)!

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