As soft skills become increasingly important in a fast-moving economy, here’s why speaking foreign languages might be one of the most useful skills of all.

A recent study from the Harvard Business School looked at what happened when a Chilean engineering company, the subsidiary of a US group, decided to change its corporate language from Spanish to English. The firm hired language specialists to run weekly training sessions for employees, paired fluent English speakers with less able colleagues, and published glossaries and other English-language documents online.

The researchers, who spent two years monitoring the company’s progress, found that those who started with the highest level of English were more frustrated by the switch, as they confronted gaps in their knowledge. They were also more likely to seek another job, perhaps because they were more employable.

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

Many more companies face a similar challenge: as they seek to compete globally and win business from clients that don’t share their home language, it becomes more likely that they will require staff to be proficient in English and other foreign languages. It’s another of the soft skills that employees and companies need to consider in a job market that is moving faster than ever.

Soft skills matter more than ever

Soft skills include anything from communication skills and teamwork to friendliness and even punctuality. They are the skills that we bring not just to our jobs but to our everyday lives as part of modern society, in contrast to the ‘hard skills’ that are applicable to a particular job or career path.

A study of hiring managers in the US, carried out by LinkedIn, found that 59% said that soft skills are difficult to find in job applicants.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

However, they are increasingly important. Today’s working world changes quickly, which means hard skills become dated equally quickly. Workers must continually update their skills throughout their careers.

In an Adecco Group study of Gen-Z ‘leaders of tomorrow’, 69% said that soft skills will be more important for future C-suite leaders than hard skills. The leadership skills of the future will depend more on curiosity, learning agility and adaptability.

A foreign language can help you remain competitive

In a recent interview about how employees can be more competitive in the job market in 2020, Adecco Group CEO Alain Dehaze said: “If you want to remain attractive and competitive on the labour market, you need to reskill and upskill yourself regularly.”

Increasingly, governments are starting to realise that there are economic benefits to life-long learning. Both France and the Netherlands have recently taken steps to fund education for adults.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

And as part of the mix of the necessary soft skills for the future world of work, learning a foreign language should be encouraged and supported. After all, speaking a foreign language can help people become and remain competitive.

English is not the only language with employment benefits

When it comes to learning English, for instance, the employability incentives are great. Cambridge English, which teaches students across the world, says that an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide – a seventh of the global population – are currently learning English.

Of course, while English is the language of global commerce, it is not the only language with employment benefits. A study of job adverts in London, carried out by an internet search engine, found that aside from English, the top three languages in terms of landing the highest paid jobs were German, Arabic and French.

When it comes to soft skills, another language might just be one of the best investments you can make in yourself in 2020.


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