This is Matthew writing. I live in New York and saw your column on the PDX Technology Professional list. Because of my upbringing (my mother is from Spain and my father is from Algeria), I am trilingual and well positioned to do international business development. This being said, most of the jobs I see listed for international positions don’t make speaking foreign languages a must. It’s described as “a plus” and seldom a subject of discussion during the interview. Knowing how people react when they meet someone who is familiar with their culture and who speaks their language, I find it an incredible mistake to not make languages a pre-requisite for any international job. Why would American employer not see language as a must-have to succeed in international sales?
Like you, I cringe each time I see a position posted for international business development that stipulates languages as “a plus, but not required” as well as “two international trips per year”! To me, those companies must be avoided at all cost, as they breed international failure and major frustration to people who, like you, understand what it takes to be successful internationally.
Once again, the confusion comes from the fact that in America, we bank everything on the product or the service. As such, there is little need for in-depth discussion (read: no need to speak the language) and even less need for international travel. Please note that when they advertise the position stating the low amount of travel, it is supposed to be taken as a positive for the future employee, as most Americans dislike international business travel (one of the reasons why Marriott and Hilton hotels are so popular throughout the world: a replica of the lifestyle Americans enjoy at home.) While this mentality worked during boom times and clients flocked to the American manufacturers while undertaking the trouble of organizing their own shipping from the factory, this sticky recession is forcing companies to rethink the mantra. Competition is fierce suddenly, and customers are demanding more bang for their buck. And because they can find it from other cultures that also manufacture like us in China, they have options. It is thus time in my opinion (and that of many international experts such as Fareed Zacharia) to raise the bar and invest in understanding other cultures and speaking more than one language. Interestingly, recent statistics show that college graduates finding a job in this economy in America are often bilingual, especially when applying for federal and state jobs. Perhaps the trend for bilingualism will start spilling into the private sector. As you saw my post on PDX Technology, you may have seen the one from the gentleman inquiring if hiring someone who has a business background AND is bilingual is better than hiring someone with an MBA. Is that the beginning of some reflection toward a field in desperate need of multilingual representatives? I sure hope so.