Perspectives: The case for language generalists

One of the hottest tickets young parents can score for their kids these days is not for a Justin Bieber concert but for an immersive Mandarin Chinese class.

Fluency in Mandarin Chinese, parents are often led to believe, offers children unlimited opportunities in a market soon to emerge as the world’s largest economy.

And while this may be true, it is also possible that Chinese will one day be viewed as just another language futilely foisted upon our youth, much like Russian in the 1980s, Japanese in the 1990s and Arabic after that.

To be clear, learning a second or third language is always a great idea. The problem is, few Americans ever achieve fluency in a language other than English. According to a 2010 Census report, only about 10% of native-born Americans speak a second language fluently.

If fluency in a second language is the bar for success for an individual, we’ve set the bar a bit too high.

In fact, perhaps we’re mistaking language fluency for success when language is just the tip of the cultural iceberg. In my experience as a globalization consultant, multinational companies are far more likely to hire locals who speak the native language plus English rather than native-English speakers who can speak the local language. It may take a few years to learn a second language, but it can take a lifetime to learn a culture.

I propose a new standard for success: the language generalist.

What this means is not becoming fluent in a second or even a third language but becoming deeply familiar with many. The language generalist may not speak multiple languages but will understand the complexities of the world’s major languages and, just as important, the cultures. From understanding the significance of the color red in China to the crescent icon in the Middle East to a cup of yerba mate in Argentina, language generalists can play a vital role in helping companies think globally.

A language generalist could attend product development meetings and play a critical role in helping the team understand cultural obstacles and opportunities. Having such input so early in the process — instead of well down the road after the product has been developed — could give companies a global advantage.

While learning one language will set you up for a career in a specific country or region, knowing a little bit about a lot of languages will allow you to interact with a wide range of nationalities, which is more often than not the template of success for most global companies.

As an example, China may indeed be Apple’s second-largest market after the United States, but Apple supports more than 30 languages on its website and sells digital goods in more than 50 markets. And Facebook’s second-largest market after the United States is Indonesia, not China (due largely to China’s great firewall).

I’ve been tracking the languages supported by the websites of the world’s leading brands for more than a decade. This year, the average number of languages supported by these websites is 28, not counting English — up from 12 in 2005. Since 2008, Starbucks has gone from 11 languages to 22, and Symantec has grown from 7 to 27.

While there’s little doubt that China will be a huge market for generations to come, the fact is that every company with global aspirations has to target many countries and, as a result, many languages. Language generalists are ideally suited to help companies manage this level of linguistic and cultural complexity.

And keep in mind that few US-based companies have begun to invest fully in India, an emerging economy home to more than 20 major languages. So instead of placing all our linguistic eggs in one basket, let’s train people to be linguistic multitaskers.

Language specialists, of course, will always be needed in the world. But so too will language generalists — and perhaps even more so.