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The Financial Express

Learning foreign languages key to success in international trade

Ismail Y Syed | Published: January 25, 2017 20:38:53 | Updated: October 21, 2017 22:42:02


Learning foreign languages key to success in international trade

Historically, networking and reliance upon contacts have been one of the core assets of international trade and one of major factors for career success. Equally, if not more, knowing one or two additional international or regional languages has become an important, if not essential factor, to win over hearts and minds in order to secure an important lucrative deal or life- changing employment, all other things being equal. In the 20th Century where both networking and knowing additional foreign languages may have complemented each other, in the 21st Century,  both now supplement each other in an increasingly interconnected compact globalised environment. This is more so where regulatory frameworks of various regions are becoming more diverse and multilayered in different languages with obvious commonly translated English and French versions running alongside.
Based upon these issues, we would like to share some thoughts on many candidates and graduates from Bangladesh and other similar countries as an example. They have been the common candidates we have faced with requests over the years to refer them to the right contacts for the purpose of exploring employment/ business opportunities abroad. There are other factors that need to be considered in employment and trade success.
 One of the issues many educated skilled graduates and executives from countries such as Bangladesh grapple with when trying to secure employment in multinationals or when doing business overseas is that they seriously lack foreign language skills in any of the core European and international languages such as French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Therefore, candidates from these countries are often 'passed over' for employment and promotion when compared to other highly skilled candidates from Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria etc. Graduates and executives from India - up to an extent, have comparatively been faring well, thanks to their own initiative rather than to their countries' education system. Among the Indian candidates, it is the South Indians who are seen to be doing comparatively better as it is not uncommon for schools in the South Indian states to teach one of the official international languages such as French or Portuguese as a second language in addition to Urdu and basic Arabic, to Hindu and non-Hindu students alike.
Back in 2015, a banking colleague of this writer reported that an American investment bank with Middle East & North Africa (MENA) headquarters in Dubai rejected a Bangladeshi executive who was flown in as part of shortlisted candidates to an 'all expenses paid for' interview, simply because he did not meet the business level competency requirements in basic Arabic and Urdu language skills and in his place, a South Indian executive, who incidentally was a Hindu in religious faith, was selected. That candidate stood out with competencies in Arabic and Urdu languages which are more often regularly used alongside business English in respective regions. This is more so when it comes to explaining the intricacies of a corporate finance deal to a local client or closing the deal after building a rapport through utilising the knowledge of the local regional languages.
Conversely, multinationals often mistakenly assume executives or graduates from the Muslim/South Asian/MENA world would be acquainted with major languages of the nearby regions by default, which is often not the case. It is not uncommon to see occasions where otherwise well-regarded executives from Asian/Muslim regions struggle to secure businesses in MENA region due to language barriers and it is not until when one of Harvard, Penn Wharton or École Normale Supérieure trained European or American executives is flown in and seamlessly negotiate with the client in one of local Arabic or Persian languages while fellow South Asian executives look on through to the end as the deals are being sealed.
Similar issue also exists in the professional academia sector. Such concerns were once relayed by a psychiatrist friend, who is also involved in dawah/religious preaching and counselling work in the US, said at a religious gathering in London, he was frequently visited by Bangladeshi and Pakistani professors and academics with symptoms of stress and depression after claims of repeatedly being passed over for highly-sought-after tenure-ship positions with feedbacks given that their academic work and publications weren't 'inclusive and comprehensive' enough for not encompassing the additional French, German and Spanish academic works. Worse, one reputed Bangladeshi academic relayed to this scribe back in 2013 at a GIES Summit in Dubai that he was passed over for tenured professorship at his interdisciplinary South Asian studies department of a leading American Ivy League university simply for not knowing Urdu/Hindi, which they regarded as lingua-franca  and which he found it difficult to come to the terms with. It was one of the factors for him to decide to relocate to the UAE from the US.
It is deeply regretful that when it comes to recruiting candidates from the Indian subcontinent (South Asia) for business needs in UK/the EU or the Middle East, as much as we executives/those at VP/MD level would like to recruit highly skilled executives from countries such as Bangladesh and other similar countries. Sadly, all other things being equal, we are compelled to go for a pool of candidates from India, Sri Lanka and (up to an extent) from Pakistan. Candidates from the latter mentioned countries are comparatively fluent at least at HSC/A level/High School Diploma level in more than one of the official international languages e.g. French, German, Spanish and Arabic etc. This is in addition to the fluency in the 'lingua franca' of the Indian subcontinent such as Urdu/Hindi - which executives from countries such as Bangladesh on numerous occasions are found to be lacking to confidently converse at professional or official level when English would just not do, especially during the final delicate moments of negotiations to win over the hearts and minds of client CEOs for striking lucrative deals on behalf of multinationals.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that candidates from countries such as Bangladesh (up to an extent) are highly admirable and many are, without any doubt, well-rounded and experienced graduates from the country's reputed institutions, from a commercial perspective they are very 'homogenous' in knowing their 'native language and English only' with no competency in any of the additional languages used in behind-the-door international business negotiations, not even Urdu/Hindi to deal with subcontinent's affairs  where business sales deals are often finalised/occasionally negotiated in to win the hearts and minds of the clients/and or for the purpose of clarification and leave no room of uncertainty.
  It seems education system and tertiary institutions in the Indian subcontinent, at least for the purpose of language competencies, are still stuck in the past 20th Century's Commonwealth Anglo-centric education system (while founding Anglo Commonwealth country the UK has moved on to a more adaptable European and international standards notwithstanding criticisms of still lagging behind its European counterparts when it comes to learning modern foreign languages).
In Europe and the Americas, it is almost a common standard that high-achieving students would pass through the educational system learning at least additional 1-2 languages alongside English/their respective native language by the time they graduate. Drawing upon own experiences from the UK education system, just like European and American counterparts, this writer had to not only learn French alongside native English but also basic German as part of his higher education/employment experience. His employment would have been at stake had he not mastered one of those languages. That is in addition to Arabic, Urdu and basic Persian he learnt when majoring in Islamic studies.
Almost all students of secular studies at leading Russell Group and Ivy League universities across the UK and Americas must learn one of the additional languages of French, German or Spanish and increasingly one of the additional Near Eastern/Eastern languages of Arabic, Mandarin, Persian, Urdu/Hindi, depending on their chosen major/minor and their career paths. For Americans and Canadians, it is 1-2 additional languages on top of their dual languages of English and Spanish and English and French respectively, totalling 4 languages for North American graduates.
It is about high time that the education system in the Indian subcontinent/South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, needs to have an overhaul that meets the need of future generations of intellectuals and business leaders if it is to keep up with the competition globally. Learning additional 2-3 international languages e.g. Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Spanish (and potentially Persian in anticipation of opening up of the lucrative Iranian market following the ease of sanctions) should be made compulsory as such approach is standard in Europe, Americas and in some Arab countries. This should be in addition to Urdu/Hindi, as those who work in investment banking, commercial/corporate world and in business trade, would be aware of how important it is to know these languages  when it comes to striking commercial deals, initiating informal negotiations and closing the deals that puts clients at ease and removing any uncertainties and concerns.
Furthermore, from a business and financial regulatory perspective, it is urgent to know the official language of the regional regulatory framework where business is conducted or regulated e.g. Arabic in the Middle East, French/German/Spanish in EU countries etc. Many documentations and forms come in two versions, the local official language version of the country where the regulators are based, and the translated versions in English and French (translated versions are not always available in all areas of business or regulatory importance, as in the case of many countries/states in Europe, Franco Africa, MENA, selected Chinese provinces and in Latin Americas). In the case of any discrepancies or contradictions between translated version of the regulations and the official language version, it is the official language of the regulatory framework that is taken as the final version by regulators/ courts. In the case of Islamic finance, the official Arabic version of the AAOIFI Standards would be taken as the ultimate final guide in case of any investigations and disputes.
The compliance or company executives cannot always rely upon the translators' error, as often in the case, they are equally, personally or jointly are held liable for any regulatory breaches. Companies are eager to save costs and are increasingly reluctant to fork out expensive translation and legal service fees for its otherwise competent executives who lack the knowledge of regional/one of the official international languages. Worse, they are frowned upon by the board when they tend to end up relying on one of online translation services e.g. Google Translate, etc., when making crucial decisions under time pressure.
Obviously knowing languages alone isn't a lone sufficient enough to succeed in a globalised environment, as other core competencies are necessary. But with other things being equal, knowing additional essential regional and international languages, written and verbal, gives an 'edge' and is increasingly seen as a lifesaver in critical situations. Saving a multibillion dollar M&A/ takeover deals from collapse by relying on existing relationship and rapport, built on utilising respective language skills, is not unheard of. In fact, it is increasingly becoming common among other factors, as reported by colleagues at leading law firms and investment banks.
iysyed@gmail.com

 

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