Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
23rd Jan 2013

Globalised economy continues to drive demand for foreign language proficiency

Virtually all of the most ambitious students in the world, at all levels – elementary, secondary, and tertiary – have one thing in common in 2013: the desire to become proficient in a language other than their native tongue, and possibly several languages. For some of these A-type students, “desire” is not strong enough a word – “requirement” is more apt. Take the example of Lenka Menden, profiled in The Economist’s article “Parlez-vous MBA?”:

“My first language is Czech, I studied for a degree in business administration in Germany and I went on to take an MSc in Prague. I then worked for three-and-a-half years as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf.”

When it came to where to study for her MBA, Ms Menden chose IESE in Barcelona, and commented to The Economist:

“I learned a new language alongside my MBA because Spanish is a very important language of business. I have extended my personal network to include people from Mexico, Spain and the Philippines. I can now work anywhere in Europe or in an emerging economy.”

Across the pond in the US, an NYU Livewire article interviewed Jim O’Grady, a journalist and professor at New York University’s graduate school of journalism who at the time of the article’s writing, was studying introductory Spanish. O’Grady explained:

“It’s become fairly obvious in our global age that Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish are hugely important languages. Additionally, as our economy becomes increasingly international, true comprehension of other cultures may become a necessity, as opposed to a leisure activity reserved for those wealthy enough to travel. In the past, [speaking only English] was a luxury we could afford because we were somewhat isolated and we were an economic power. But with each passing year, that becomes less possible.”

But while Americans are now becoming increasingly aware of the need to speak another language, they are facing significant obstacles to achieving this goal. A Forbes article recently reported that despite growing demand among Americans for foreign language courses, American “schools at every level are balancing their budgets and offsetting reductions in government allocations by cutting their offerings and/or eliminating foreign language requirements.”  This, despite the fact that right now roughly 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English versus 53% of Europeans. By contrast, reforms to British curriculum (due to take effect in 2014) include all children in Britain being taught a foreign language from the age of seven, and Scotland announced last year that within a decade all pupils will start learning other languages from the first year of primary school instead of the currently mandated P6.

Opportunities for foreign language providers

International students will be increasingly drawn to schools at every level and possibly abroad that can offer them foreign language proficiency – whether through stand-alone courses or schools, or within programmes such as MBAs. Spurring their demand may well be reports such as this one from the influential Economist Intelligence Unit: Competing across borders: How cultural and communication barriers affect business. The Economist report (available for free) is based on a 2012 survey targeted at 572 executives in Europe, Asia Pacific, North America and Latin America. Just one quote from the report underlines the importance of foreign language proficiency for graduates:

“Even when recruiting for jobs in their home market, almost one-half of all companies say that prospective candidates need to be fluent in a foreign language and a further 13% say that multilingual ability is a key selection criterion.”

Which languages are in demand?

UK-based The Telegraph recently posted a list of the ten best languages to study based on their relation to employability. The Guardian narrows it down (for Brits) to French, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Russian. Key Skills for Enterprise to Trade Internationally, published by Forfás (Ireland’s policy advisory board for enterprise and science) and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) emphasises a more comprehensive list: German, French, Spanish and Italian as well as Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Arabic. Of course, the demand for programmes in certain languages will vary across the world. In India, for example, there have been recent reports of a surge in applications to take the Japanese language proficiency test. Portuguese and Hindi could be very important for some students. And despite the rise of non-Western nations in the global economy, English is still the language most commonly used as the first language of business in international commerce.

Tips for responding to multiple language demand

Recruiters should be aware of rising demand for:

  • Foreign language training not just at the tertiary level, but at the primary and secondary levels as well. Families who are very serious about the career-boosting benefits of a study abroad option will increasingly be considering private boarding schools as well as summer language camps for their children.
  • MBAs that include foreign language proficiency as a graduation requirement (e.g., Thunderbird, a top-ranked School of Global Management with locations across the world, or London Business School).
  • Stand-alone language programmes that emphasise immersion in the culture of the host country. Multinational communication is about more than language; it is about knowing the culture of another country (i.e., degree of formality, culinary traditions, gender etiquette, etc.) The most recent ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer survey found that language programmes – especially those lasting 2 to 4 weeks – remain the most popular programme into which agents are placing students, accounting for 81% of placements.

When speaking with families about the benefits of bilingual or multilingual elementary or secondary school education, recruiters could reference findings such as these (from a report by US-based The National Education Association) for learning a second language in primary school:

  • Enhances academic progress in other subjects;
  • Narrows achievement gaps;
  • Benefits basic skills development;
  • Benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking;
  • Enriches and enhances cognitive development;
  • Enhances a student's sense of achievement;
  • Helps students score higher on standardised tests;
  • Promotes cultural awareness and competency;
  • Improves chances of college acceptance, achievement and attainment;
  • Enhances career opportunities;
  • Benefits understanding and security in community and society.

Or these links from Science Daily:

As for adult students, there is a wealth of research out there now about the career-related benefits of becoming proficient in at least one other language than one’s native tongue. For example, in India, a research study reported the following:

“After controlling for age, social group, schooling, geography and proxies for ability, we find that hourly wages are on average 34% higher for men who speak fluent English and 13% higher for men who speak a little English relative to men who do not speak English.” (Azam, Chin & Prakash)

The UK’s official graduate careers website, Prospects, asserts:

“The UK is highly globalised and boasts the third-largest economy in Europe, meaning the job market is competitive. International students with good English language skills can go far, as speaking more than one language is becoming a desirable skill to possess in the world of business.”

And in the US, the Council on Foreign Relations argues that “the promotion of foreign language instruction should be a national priority,” noting:

“The global economy is shifting away from the English-speaking world. Since 1975, the English-speaking share of global GDP has fallen significantly and will continue to fall. The Chinese economy will surpass the US economy in size soon after 2030. Latin America (Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking) and South Asia (Hindi- and Urdu-speaking) are growing strongly as well. Exports have accounted for half of post-recession US economic growth, and future US growth will increasingly depend on selling US goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English.”

Interestingly, ICEF Monitor reported last year that Asia and Latin America are also leading the way in terms of student enrolment forecasts. It should not be difficult to find research to bolster the importance of schools that prioritise foreign language proficiency, and it may well be that there is no need to make the case, as students and their families will already be convinced.

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