Five Languages that are the Most Useful for International Business

| May 11, 2013
The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy, u...

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While English is still considered to be the “language of business”, there are some other languages that are becoming more common in the business arena.  Many non-American business people have the advantage of being fluent in more than one language.  In the past, it was expected that business would be conducted in English.  This is still the assumption; however it cannot always be an unwritten rule in today’s business environment.  Many businesses are either hiring bilingual employees or are finding translation services that would provide support for written exchanges.  For business people interested in looking into learning another language or seeking the services of a translation company, the following languages would be good places to start.

  1. Chinese (Mandarin) – A rapidly growing player in international business, China is becoming an economic powerhouse in world markets.  More than 1.2 billion people speak Chinese making it the most commonly spoken language in the world.  From a business standpoint, it makes sense to have the capability to produce both business-to-business and consumer-focused materials about the company.  As China becomes a more desirable trade partner and location for outsourcing, communicating with other business professional, consultants, and workers that only speak Chinese will become essential. Additionally, with the largest consumer base in the world, advertising in Chinese can dramatically affect a company’s bottom line in a positive way.
  2. Arabic – With more than 300 million speakers and the official language of twenty countries, Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world.  The Middle East, where nearly all countries have Arabic as their official language, is an opening market for global business.  This part of the world is becoming a leader in technology and finance in addition to its key role in global oil sales and production.  Whether seeking a trading partner or a new customer base, having materials and access to language capabilities in Arabic is becoming a need for many companies.
  3. Spanish – Spoken by nearly 330 million people worldwide, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the world, just edging English out.  Spanish is spoken in forty-four countries worldwide with many of these countries being up-and-coming players in the international business market.  For native English speakers, Spanish is considered to be one of the easiest to learn as it is very similar to English as many Spanish words are cognates, words that sound similar in both languages.  In the fields of US health care and education, speaking Spanish or offering sales materials and products written in Spanish are essential as these areas have significant members for whom Spanish is their home language.
  4. German – A stalwart language for business, German is still a widely spoken, with approximately 80 million+ speakers worldwide.  As Germany and Austria are two of the economically strongest members of the EU, businesses who wish to do business in the EU should have materials available in German.  The German economy is extremely stable and German businesses have become experts in producing and exporting products, second only to China.  Many popular world brands, such as BMW, Bayer, and Siemens to name a few.  Academia, particularly in the science fields, is dominated by research and materials written in German.  As companies seek to forge business relationships, develop a customer base, or establish trading partner relationships in the EU, businesses will learn quickly that fully one-third of business is conducted in German.
  5. Russian – Russia has undergone many changes in past decades.  Steadily moving into the global business market, Russia brings with it 285 million speakers of Russian as well as speakers of other languages who lived in former Soviet states in which Russian was the primary language.  As the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe become more involved with international business, materials available in and speakers of Russian will become an important part of most companies’ international marketing plans.  Russia has steadily opened its borders to multi-national companies and has the workforce and resources to establish itself as a lucrative location for businesses looking to expand into Europe and Asia.  Having the ability to communicate in Russian will open a great many opportunities for businesses willing to take advantage of them.

While English is still the primary language of business, it is no longer the sole option.  Business is now a global, multi-national venture both in business-to-business dealings as well as a company’s interaction with its workers and customers.  Businesses that are interested in growth and expansion will have to consider having materials available in other languages – with these five being a great place to start!

Michael Bastin runs, a professional translation agency with offices in the USA and Europe.

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Category: Business, Working Abroad

Comments (16)

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  1. Linda says:

    Nice article, but I think there is a mistake with the number of speakers for German, seems to be a zero missing… Germany has a population of more than 80 million, hence the 10 million mentioned in the article seems a bit too low.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the correction. I fixed it. I should proofread these articles a little better. Thanks.

      • Joan D. Gill says:

        I’m an American and I’m bilingual! Your statement, “Many non-American business people have the advantage of being fluent in more than one language…” is a bit insulting. Yes, our counterparts in other parts of the world are much more likely to be fluent in more than one language. But please don’t characterize all Americans as being mono-lingual.

        • admin says:

          That was a generalization I shouldn’t have made. I find it satisfying to see so many immigrants come to this country and learn English and prosper.

  2. I think the author misees the point. Of course Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and German are key world languages and anyone who can master one as well as English will have a big advantage in business. However English is still way ahead the favourite choice for people who do not share the same language. Though the number of mother-tongue, first-language speakers of Chinese is much greater than those of English, the growing numbers of those who have enough knowledge to conduct business in English will be tipping the balance for years to come.

    • admin says:

      Investor Jim Rogers has moved to China and is seeing to it that his children are learning Mandarin. He says it will be the language of the 21st century while English was the language of the 20th century.

  3. Willem koper says:

    Let’s not forget that it is more difficult to sell your products in a second or third language than it is to buy from foreign companies. Spoken communication, skills especially by telephone, are more and more important. Finally, not just because you speak another language you’ll sell more. The cultural aspect and your network are more important to do business. On the global market your price is the most important of all.

    • admin says:

      I believe any company that needs to have a salesforce fluent in a foreign language will see to it they are well trained in the language and the culture of the country they are trying to sell to. Not having the best would be disastrous for a company’s sales.

  4. Anni Liao says:

    I agree with your article. I speak Mandarin, Spanish and English fluently and it is a real advantage! I never have to worry about not finding a job. Different companies come to me and I just keep turning down the ones I can’t handle anymore or do not find interesting enough – I work with 4-5 companies at the same time, not as an translator but in sales, communications, auditing, etc. There are so many companies that need this kind of talent, and they tend to “trust” more someone who speaks their same language in a different country.

    • admin says:

      Someone with your skills are an asset to any company. I don’t see why more people don’t speak 2 or 3 languages. If English is your only language you’re lucky because when traveling abroad you can always find someone who speaks English.

  5. Chris says:

    You should also have mentioned French, an official language in 29 countries due to past extensive colonial ambitions of France and Belgium. French was introduced to colonies in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, the Levant, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.
    77 million in Europe speak French natively. Outside of France, the highest numbers of French speakers are found in Belgium (45% of the population), Switzerland (20% of the population) and Luxembourg. In 2013, the Ministry identified French as the second most spoken language in Europe, after German and before English.

    • admin says:

      I should’ve included it. I forgot that a lot of colonial languages moved their way around the globe years ago. It’s a beautiful language that should be in a business person’s repertoire.

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  7. Roger Bertrand says:

    Well I am a French native speaker, worked 15 years 100% in English, now have lived 10 years 100 % in Spanish, understand Portuguese and Italian, and I will say that the most useful is English. It is also the most direct, concise and action oriented to conduct business. Not to speak of technology friendly. My advice to anybody is First learn English well, you will get a higher ROI .

    • admin says:

      What would your advice be for someone with English as their first language. What language should they learn?

      • Roger Bertrand says:

        I would recommend Chinese – Mandarin after English basically for the shear size of the market. Now, failing that Spanish would be as it reaches a fairly large geographic zone and market size. But beyond all, one has to appreciate that languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian are lawyers and legislator’s languages not business nor executive nor engineer languages. Those languages are very nice to say nothing with a lot of words, whilst English is an action oriented language that on top has the great benefit of being very Technology Friendly, since technology was basically brought up in English in its root form.
        My experience with 3 of these languages tell me that to get THINGS DONE, English is a better instrument of communication (one caveat I do not know Chines Mandarin hence cannot qualify it in this context).

        PS: German is another good one but it has not the same diffusion world wide as English.