Gaining an Edge with a Second Language
English may be the international language of business and commerce, but in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society like ours, it may not be enough to have only one language in your linguistic arsenal.
Speaking at the Business China Awards ceremony in November 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that Singaporeans must sharpen their bilingual and bicultural edge to sustain the country’s competitive advantage.
For many Singaporeans, our ability to read, write and speak both English and Mandarin grants us access to both Western and Chinese culture. And when increasing numbers of people outside of China are making an effort to pick up Mandarin in recognition of China’s ascendance, those who can only speak one language risk becoming less competitive.
It’s not difficult to see why speaking a second language like Mandarin will help you compete in the job market. In this world of global business, cultural and geographical boundaries are becoming increasingly fluid and blurred. For instance, you may be required to work regularly with business associates in China or Japan, each with their own unique cultural identity and language. And if you’re able to converse fluently in either of these languages, you can count on your interactions going a lot more smoothly.
Companies with close relationships with foreign firms, particularly those that hail from countries with a native language other than English, often prefer to hire employees who can speak a second language.
The ability to speak a second language will also open more doors for you in your career. For example, your language abilities may identify you as a good candidate for overseas assignments. Not only will you be able to liaise more effectively with foreign business partners, you may very well yield better results than your monolingual peers and identify yourself as a better performer.
Similarly, should you choose to strike it out on your own and search for employment opportunities overseas, you’ll feel a lot more confident about your chances if you are fluent in the native language. There is little doubt that the language to learn these days is Mandarin. As the second largest economy in the world, Chinese businesses are firmly plugged into global business networks and trade links.
But the benefits of bilingualism extend beyond simply being able to converse with more people. Studies have shown that bilingualism can confer significant cognitive benefits such as improved agility, a stronger ability to deal with ambiguities and resolve conflicts, and even protection against mental decline and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
And because they have to constantly switch quickly between two languages, bilingual people are also thought to have better task-switching capacities and are in general more adept at multi-tasking. In a fast-paced global economy, the ability to effectively handle multiple tasks and switch between them is a valuable skill indeed.
In addition, bilingualism improves the brain’s executive control system, which controls the attention processes we use for planning, problem-solving and other mentally demanding tasks. It is also responsible for the processes that help us ignore distractions, stay focus and handle complex multi-tasking. This is thought to translate into a better ability to monitor the environment and process information.
If all these sound like skills you could apply in the workplace, you’re probably right. Not only does picking up a second language confer you a competitive advantage on the job market, it might even help you do your job better in subtle ways in the long-run.