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Tongue Tied: Learning a Second Language Can Boost Your Career, but It’s Costly

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By Ruth MantellRISMEDIA, Sept. 19, 2007-(MarketWatch)-Business is indeed global these days and for many professionals that means investing the time and the money to learn a foreign language could pay off in terms of career advancement and salary.

Especially in jobs in finance and sales, learning key languages — such as Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese — could make sense. Workers who depend on commissions or are looking to introduce products overseas could also benefit, experts say.
But bilingualism doesn’t come cheap. You’ll have to spend anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 or more for classes that will give you proficiency in a second language.

“There’s a growing awareness that studying a foreign language can help one obtain a really successful career and make them a lot more hirable,” said Jerry Lampe, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center.

Second languages, especially Spanish in the United States, are likely to help in fields where you deal directly with buyers, such as in automobile sales. Call centers for collection agencies will pay a 10% to 15% premium for bilingual workers for their experience and skill, says Kurt Ronn, founder of professional-level recruitment firm HRworks.

“They’re paying a premium not because Spanish is more important. It’s just a segment of the market where they have trouble finding people who are truly bilingual,” Ronn says.

Those who only speak English can get by in the business world. But if you’re going to study another language, some may be more helpful to your career than others, says Paul Platten, global director of human capital consulting at consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Mandarin can be particularly useful, especially in fields such as manufacturing, he says.

“People with Chinese language skills are very much in demand. I think that definitely becomes in your favor when you’re negotiating salary increases,” Platten says. “I don’t think most companies would pay for most of the European languages — English is just too common over there.”

He adds that financial-services professionals could benefit from leaning another language. “There’s a lot of deal making around the world,” he says.

Speaking of service

Language skills can also be key for service industries. At the Willard InterContinental Washington, a luxury hotel a few blocks from the White House, a staff of about 570 represents 42 nations, speaking 19 languages.

The Willard’s front-of-house employees such as the concierge have at least two languages. Of four doormen, three speak Spanish and English. Bilingualism is not an absolute requirement, but it is desirable, according to Wendi Colby, director of human resources.

Workers with skills in a second language may have an edge when it comes to climbing Willard’s professional ladder.
“The individual that spoke more languages would have a better chance for managerial role, whatever the next level would be,” Colby says. “They are able to deal with a wide array of clients, employees.”

The hotel offers fully-funded foreign language classes to employees as part of their training and development through the International Center for Language Studies Inc. In the past three years, 35 Willard employees have studied a foreign language, with another
25 studying English.

“It’s to help them in their job,” Colby says. “It’s a great opportunity because once they go back to work the next they can practice that language.”

Costs can be high

Unless your company funds your instruction, picking up a language could be financially daunting. A 10-week group class for two to four students costs about $1,500 for Berlitz, an international provider of language instruction.

The Boston Language Institute charges $499 per level — it provides five levels of instruction plus a conversational class — for its group Mandarin classes. Arabic will set you back $599 per level.

The Boston institute has about 3,000 students per year studying anywhere from 30 to 40 languages, and in some cases goes to companies to teach. The eight most popular classes are in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Mandarin and Russian.

“In most cases people come here on their own volition…sometimes reimbursed by their companies, sometimes not,” said Siri Karm Singh Khalsa, president of the institute.

Some of the school’s clients are workers with companies that do business in South America, Europe or Asia.

“They’re at a point where they’ve received a high enough level of seniority that their company is willing to invest in them,” Khalsa said.

In the United States, corporations make up the majority of Berlitz’s business. Thomas Uehara, Berlitz’s director of operations for the United States and Puerto Rico, says online instruction has grown significantly over the past few years.

“In this day and age of technology a lot of people opt for the convenience of having the instruction at their homes or offices at any given time,” Uehara says. “Especially for those people who are not able to commute to our facilities this is great solution for them.”
But payoff can be large

As the former director of language studies at Johns Hopkins University, Lampe says he saw students studying Japanese offered careers in international affairs, some in banking and finance, make $100,000 a year at a company where knowledge of the language would be essential for their success.

HRworks’ Ronn said knowing a foreign language can have a direct impact on compensation. For example, the government offers a premium for skills in critical languages such as Arabic.

“People will pay a premium for a language,” Ronn says. “That’s driven by the fact that there are not enough people who are bilingual.”

Many employers might not have a policy that dictates paying more for bilingual workers, Ronn says.

“But if you’re bilingual, that’s going to make you a more desirable candidate. You have a better chance of getting the position and being successful,” he says.

But beware of trying to sell yourself as bilingual if high school courses are the extent of your training. HRworks and other firms conduct interviews in the second language to ensure an applicant’s proficiency.

Experts also recommend taking time to learn cultural nuances, which can be just as important as speaking a language if you’re looking to close deals, experts say.

Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.

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