The Benefits of Language Skills for an International MBA Career | TopMBA.com

The Benefits of Language Skills for an International MBA Career

By Visnja Milidragovic

Updated February 22, 2021 Updated February 22, 2021

It has become a significant advantage in business to speak more than one language, as MBA employers find themselves participating in an increasingly global market that requires cross-cultural understanding and communication skills. In fact, QS’s 2015 survey of MBA employers shows that international awareness and language skills are among the most-valued attributes sought among those who hire MBAs. As such, it may be advisable for MBA prospects, regardless of which language(s) they have grown up speaking, to consider an MBA experience that will help them expand their languages skills. Bilingual candidates, on the other hand, may want to seek out MBA programs whose mandatory language requirements they already meet, in order to leverage this advantage in admissions - and later, towards working in new markets and building an international MBA career.

Start local and use language skills to internationalize your MBA career later

Whether it’s simply by immersing yourself in a foreign culture, or through taking an MBA program with mandatory requirements to study a second (or even third) language, pursuing an MBA in a destination that will expose you to a new language may be the ticket to employment in a new market - or at least one very important part.

Speaking the dominant language of business in that new destination may not simply be enough right out of the gate, of course. Factors like visa restrictions and local competition can limit MBAs with no local experience post-graduation, or at least make it more challenging to secure work. However, expanding language skills could be part of a more long-term international MBA career strategy that increases your chances of success in new markets. Managing director of INSEAD’s MBA program, Minh Huy Lai, advises students to follow, “a two-step process,” whereby MBAs first leverage their degree to secure a role with a multinational company in their own home country (citing Unilever as one example).  They can then create a career move to a new destination within the same company and one for which their language skills are sufficient. “The benefits of developing language skills during your MBA are delayed, but can pay off in the long term,” Lai explains.

That second or third language may just be the line on your résumé that enables you to move to your target market. Many MBA employers may look for language skills essential for roles that involve cross-border operations and other types of collaborative work between the firm’s international offices, clients and teams. Lai cites citizens of India and Brazil as perfect examples of candidates who can follow this route to carve out successful careers in the US, or other markets seen to be more competitive for international students. This may work particularly well when applying to firms in destinations that frequently conduct business with their home country, or for multinational firms they already have experience working for locally, says Lai.

UK and US employers need more language skills to remain competitive

From the employers’ perspective, there are long-term benefits to hiring multilingual employees – and this includes MBA employers in the West. Given the current market atmosphere produced by the internationalization of commerce across the world, one language just doesn’t seem to cut it for long-term, global-scale business operations. In fact, a recent study of UK-based business leaders, together with a survey of US-based hiring managers, shows that many companies are finding it hard to operate globally because they can’t find new staff who can speak other languages. “While English is becoming the lingua franca worldwide, the local languages and cultural styles are continuing to dominate the world of business,” explains Nitish Singh, a professor at Saint Louis University, in the foreword. Stressing the importance of “cross-cultural competence” (intercultural skills and language) for competitive advantage in this global networked economy, Singh adds that, “companies need to become more adept at localizing their communications and offerings to meet diverse linguistic and cultural expectations.” As such, MBAs planning their future would be wise to think of these implications on their employability.

Advice to MBAs: Expand language skills to increase employability

Concerned with the needs of the UK specifically, a 2013 British Council report, Languages For the Future, identified a clear language deficit in the UK when considering factors such as trade, the language needs of UK business, and emerging, high-growth markets. The report identified Spanish as the top language “of the future” for the UK, as well. It also recognized Mandarin as the most widely spoken language in the world, which coupled with the growth of the Chinese economy (overtaking the US two years ago), has clear implications on the movement of people, jobs, and goods and services.

While global trends might dictate which languages are in higher need in the job market, language study choice is often guided more by a student’s own cultural affinity and career plans, explains Lai. With 53% of INSEAD’s latest MBA class changing countries after graduation, the school’s graduates seem set on ensuring that there’s an international focus to their careers. In describing which third language INSEADers typically choose to study, Lai points to a wide set: Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. “Of a class of about 600 candidates, only five did not fulfil the language requirement,” says Lai. The fact that this has to be done in addition to the core curriculum and in a timeframe of ten short months (the length of the program), may indicate that cultural affinity is a major factor – which, truth be told, also can dictate the direction of career plans. From an industry point of view, some are more forgiving than others, while finance and top-tier consulting firms will almost certainly require local language skills. “Private equity firms in China, for example, prefer Chinese speakers,” Lai says, adding that McKinsey and Bain are the same – selecting candidates with language skills apt for the location in which they are based.

MBA foreign language study opportunities: Where to study

One way to integrate language study into your MBA is by choosing a program that requires the learning of a new foreign language to graduate. Most of the world’s top business schools offer MBA programs solely in the English language. However, some programs have higher prerequisites in the language department, most notably in Europe and China, as these destinations more actively use secondary languages such as Spanish, French, and Mandarin when conducting local and international business.

For example, international MBA students enrolled at HEC Paris need to complete French language courses as part of their curriculum. Over in the UK, London Business School (LBS), while requiring no foreign language for admissions, requires students to attain ‘level 2’ (limited working proficiency) on the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale in a second language in order to graduate. INSEAD, which also teaches its MBA exclusively in English, perhaps offers the largest challenge - and opportunity - for language advancement: It requires not only a second language for entry, but a third by the time students finish the program.

MBA students wishing to develop language skills on their own, may want to consider other destinations that provide the opportunity for language immersion. For example, though EU Business School requires only English language proficiency for its MBA programs, each of its four campuses (Munich, Barcelona, Geneva and Montreux) offers its own distinct cultural environment. Similarly, while IE Business School doesn’t require Spanish fluency, it does offer an intensive four-week language program for anyone wishing to work on their language skills prior to starting the program.

In China, although proficiency in Mandarin is not an essential prerequisite for entry into most MBA programs, learning the local language is essential for success in the program and for a career in China (the reason many students pursue study there to begin with). As such, it is common for top business schools in China to offer local language training as part of the MBA experience. CEIBS, for example, requires students with no existing knowledge of Mandarin to attain basic competency through a one-month immersion course.

Some students may also want to consider a dual degree through leading Western institutions that will give them exposure to both markets. For example, MIT Sloan offers an MBA in conjunction with Tsinghua University in Beijing, Fudan University School of Management in Shanghai and Lingnan (University) College in Guangzhou; Chicago Booth has partnerships with HKUST and the CUHK among others; and ESADE offers a dual MBA degree with Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management in Beijing.

The time seems ripe for MBAs to take heed of the increasing need for foreign language skills when searching for jobs in specific markets – and those in the UK and US, as we’ve seen, should not be discounted from this. Studying in a destination in which students are exposed to new languages is one way of ensuring they develop the kind of language skills they may need to employ in the future to make their career ambitions a reality.

This article was originally published in September 2016 . It was last updated in February 2021

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Written by

Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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