Back in your high school foreign language class, you may have been thinking, “Why do I need this anyway?” Sure, you can get by without a second language -- especially if English, the world’s lingua franca, is your native tongue -- but chances are you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage, especially in the business world.
America’s most successful businesspeople are becoming increasingly multilingual, and that’s no coincidence. The vast majority of studies on bilingualism show that knowing a second language improves the brain’s executive function. In other words, it gives you a heightened ability to monitor your environment which can help you stay focused and quickly switch between tasks, not to mention the advantages it gives you in communicating in our ever shrinking global commercial community.
Bill Gates admitted that he regrets never having learned a foreign language. Here are five top business leaders whose multilingual talents might make you want to reconsider learning another language.
1. Mark Zukerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook: English and Chinese
Zuckerberg’s remarkable grasp of Chinese during his Q&A at Tsinghua University in Beijing impressed many around the world, including his Mandarin speaking in-laws. But he was also likely courting the more than 1.3 billion Chinese citizens who could become potential Facebook users if and when Beijing drop its ban on the world’s most popular social media site.
2. Michael Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg L.P.: English and Spanish
Michael Bloomberg’s knowledge of Spanish stole the spotlight when, as mayor of New York City, his language skills helped save the day for New York’s Hispanic community during super storm Sandy. From a business point of view, knowledge of Spanish, especially in the U.S., is increasingly turning out to be not just an advantage, but a necessity. The buying power of the Latino community in the U.S. is now estimated at $1.5 trillion and growing.
3. Leo Apotheker, former CEO at SAP, Hewlett Packer: German, Dutch, French, English and Hebrew
Leo Apotheker is fluent in five languages, which no doubt helped him while manning the helm of German software multinational SAP. It was also cited as a reason he was chosen to be CEO of Hewlett Packer, with its extraordinary worldwide reach.
4. Paul Bulcke, CEO, Nestle: Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German
With a mastery of six languages, Paul Bulcke is perhaps the perfect CEO for such a giant company with such an international scope. Nestlé operates 450 factories in 86 countries, employing 340,000 workers from more than 90 different nations. Bulcke is quoted on Nestle’s website stating, “Being multilingual creates a stronger connection with peers, employees, and consumers, which is critical for a business like ours.” Bulcke is a true global citizen for a truly global company.
5. Tidjane Thiam, Chief Executive, Credit Suisse: French, German and English
This French-Ivorian businessman's command of French, German and English also served him well at a host of other positions at leading international firms, including partner at McKinsey and chief executive at Prudential, earning him a spot on the World Economic Forum’s list of 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow.
So if you’re looking to move ahead and lead in today’s dynamic, global business world, learning a foreign language may just be the key.