Learn A New Language

As business goes global, mastering new languages can give you an edge--provided you invest wisely.

Imagine this: you've been seconded to a position in Tokyo, starting in no time. You don't speak a word of Japanese, so what do you do? Or maybe it's Mexico City or Montreal, and the languages in question are Spanish or French. Although many of us are daunted by the thought of trying to master a new tongue, the average Canadian could acquire one every year in the time he now spends watching television. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in picking up a second language lies in picking out the right course of study. “We have a bewildering number of opportunities for a business executive to respond to the challenge,” says Jan Walls, director of the David See-Chai Lam Centre for International Communication at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University.

For the self-starter, there are multimedia CD-ROM packages. Cultural organizations, community centres, universities, colleges and institutions like Berlitz all offer excellent classes. The Goethe Institute (for German) and the Alliance Française (for French) are also well regarded. Then there's study abroad, either of an academic bent or in the more luxurious bicycle-tour-and-wine-tasting mode.

Some institutions specialize in high-level language training specifically for business, the David Lam Centre among them. “We focus on the languages of East Asia: Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean mostly,” says Walls. (Bahasa Indonesian is also offered.) “We're geared toward people in business and professional or government services who need to interact with counterparts or customers from East Asia.” The centre offers small-group courses year-round. Nine-week, 22.5-hour language courses cost $288. Occasionally, the school also offers “kamikaze courses,” which Walls describes as “suicidally intensive,” to people who must reach a survival level within a few weeks.

Eighteen years ago, the McRae Institute of International Management at Capilano College in North Vancouver began to train Canadian managers to work effectively in Asia. Candidates typically spend the first year in Canada and the second on a paid co-op placement in the target region. The program was designed around three components: managerial skills, the context of the region, and languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Bahasa Indonesian. It has since expanded to include a Latin American stream offering Portuguese and Spanish. The institute accepts a limited number of students into language classes alone. The basic fee for a 120-hour, 30-week course beginning in September is $1,150. (The full two-year program has also recently begun to take in international trainees from its focus regions. “This is a very effective and cost-effective approach for Canadian businesses,” says Mitra Kiamanesh, director of external relations and former program chair.)

But what about French, probably the language most needed by anglophones in Canadian business? Louise Charest (yes, she's the sister of Quebec Premier Jean Charest) founded her École de langues de l'Estrie 20 years ago. “Our primary objective is for employees to be able to function in French or English in the workplace,” she says. The school offers courses in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke, and can make programs available anywhere in Canada, as it often does for military and government clients. Fees range from $40 to $50 per hour, typically for one to six hours a week.

The crème de la crème would be the Canadian Foreign Service Institute's Centre for Language Training. Among business clients, the centre has trained foreign correspondents for The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen, specialist technicians sent to review hydro installations in Costa Rica, and operations managers for a Canadian-owned brewery in Mexico. “We can offer survival or professional language training and testing in over 50 languages anywhere in Canada,” says director Gerald Redmond. “We can do it at their site, they can come here, or we can even arrange to have them registered in an immersion in-country program after they've reached a high enough level of proficiency.” The cost is a flat $55 an hour for training in Ottawa, more elsewhere. “Our price is the same for one student or for eight,” says Redmond. “If they wanted to come to Ottawa and join one of our existing groups, we would charge them a pro-rated fee.” The most advanced, six-month, full-time courses start in September.

By comparison, Berlitz can tailor its corporate programs to a specific industry or job and offers group instruction for up to $65.50 per 45-minute lesson. (The lesson can be offered to 300 or more at a time; larger classes cost slightly less.) Individual instruction for executives costs $2,850 per level (one level consists of about 36 hours of instruction). Total immersion runs $2,875 per level, covered in just five days.

How to choose among the many options? These questions would be an ideal place to start.

What types of skills do you require?

“If you're dealing with a high-level executive, they don't have time to waste,” says Joan Rubin, an independent consultant in teacher training and diversity management based in Wheaton, Md., and co-author of the book How to Be a More Successful Language Learner. “What are you going to need? To be able to make a presentation? Manage staff? Write memos?” If it's not immediately clear what skills a certain job requires, she adds, “you can do a language audit, where somebody goes in and talks to the people doing the job.”

A business traveller may get by with survival-level skills, like the capacity to ask directions, visit a doctor and introduce herself. While more senior executives, who use interpreters and translators, often require only survival skills, Walls says “it would behoove more front-line executives to aim for a more advanced level.”

It's worth noting that in our own mother tongue we spend the vast majority of our time speaking “around the intermediate level,” says Redmond. “Advanced skills will be important if you need to do such things as work over the telephone, conduct and chair meetings, negotiate or defend your company's actions.”

How many hours of instruction do you need?

“Plan on spending more time than you would think,” says Rubin. “Most of the commercial places suggest that you can learn a foreign language in 50 to 100 hours. But to become fluent in an easy language like Spanish or French takes something like 700 hours. If you're talking about languages where you have a different writing system, it's at least double that.”

An English speaker starting from scratch needs more than 1,000 hours of training to be able to work in French in Canada, Charest estimates. “Some executives think that they can take courses for 14 hours a day for two weeks and then pass the exam,” she says. “But a language is a language: you can't just absorb everything.”

Like many institutions, the Foreign Service Institute's Centre for Language Training classifies languages according to their level of difficulty. “If someone were studying a Level 1 language like Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian or Dutch, they would expect to train for one month, full-time, six hours a day,” says Redmond, in order to reach the basic survival level. “If they wanted a professional level in those languages, they would be looking at six months of full-time training. For a Level 4 language like Arabic, Korean, Japanese or Mandarin, the survival program would take three months and the professional level would take 22 months. In between those extremes you have Russian, German, Indonesian, Hindi, Ukrainian and Vietnamese. Those take about two months at the survival level and about 10 at the professional level.”

Does the program you're considering focus on specific proficiencies?

Business language learners need to learn in the context of real-life situations. “Pronunciation and grammar are important, but they are only tools for the true goal, which is communication,” says Walls. “The focus should always be on how to behave in representative situations.” For example? Booking train tickets. A transaction at a bank. Introducing a presentation in your hosts' language before switching back to English.

Who teaches?

The ideal answer: a native speaker with teaching credentials. (Instructors in the Foreign Service program must also have qualifications in a career such as journalism, law, science or diplomacy.)

Who's in charge?

Teachers are like airline pilots: they may be steering the machine, but it's the client who decides where to go. The concept is expressed in the field of “andragogy,” which postulates that the best learning happens when adults understand the value of what they are studying, participate in setting their own objectives and approach learning as problem-solving.

What's the class size?

In general, smaller is better. But beware of classes so small that they lump together students at different competency levels.

Is there a cultural component?

“You can't get by without knowing cultural things, like the rules of negotiation,” says Rubin. To that end, Charest recommends living with a family that speaks the language you are studying. “When an executive goes to Quebec City to learn French and stays in a hotel, to me that's wasted time,” she says. “To have that integration: into food, into way of life, is part of a language. The best way to do it is really a combination of living with a family integrated in the culture and also some classroom training.”

True communication trumps technical proficiency every time. After all, as Walls puts it: “It's of questionable virtue to use perfect pronunciation and flawless grammar to say something ridiculous.”