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Taking this international

Jason Coleman | Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Last weekend, the first gold medal of the winter Olympics was awarded to Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann. While his ability to propel himself off a ramp 108 meters into the air was incredible, it was his post interview that was particularly telling. In it, he spoke in incredible English to the NBC interviewer, not only giving the normal “it felt great” sort of sentiments, but also metaphors and idioms to describe his delight. I know quite well that Western Europeans in particular have famously gifted tongues, often speaking three or more languages fluently. Some claim this is simply a result of necessity; that European countries simply couldn’t live together without its citizens able to communicate across languages. This is in part true; however, there still seems to be a sense of good European citizenship that involves learning another language, if only to accommodate each other more easily. This is something that is certainly lacking in the United States, with many students rarely even taking serious language classes in grade school, middle school or college.

The common argument is that English is the language of the world, should be the language of the world or soon will be the only language worth knowing in the world. So, if we are fluent in English, what else do we need? Globalization has in fact made the world smaller, and has increased the number of English speakers on the planet. However, it is hard to imagine that English will be the only language worth knowing any time soon. Even with hundreds of years of continental coexistence, the French still speak French, and the Spaniards still speak Spanish. Education in the United States should work harder to imbue the sense of global citizenship that accompanies learning a foreign language.
This seems to be lost on most major universities, our own included. While the school of Arts and Letters and the school of Science require at least intermediate proficiency in one foreign language (which is great), the school of business requires no language courses at all. In fact, it is possible to earn an International Business Certificate upon graduation without ever taking a language course, or even leaving the country at all.

The majority puts forth the argument that English is the language of business, and no other language is needed to be an international businessperson. It may be possible to operate internationally without any language experience, but one will certainly be limited in their effectiveness. If the ultimate purpose of business is to sell a product or service to someone, then one might ask how an American in Beijing plans to sell something to a Chinese business that operates mostly in Chinese. Moreover, even if the actual business is handled in English, it certainly doesn’t hurt to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of culture through language. Just being able to use simple greetings, and talk about the challenge of learning a foreign language with someone who has had a similar experience learning English is good for business relations, and, as a result, good for business.

In addition to making graduates more appealing to potential employers, the simple act of learning a language is a different kind of challenge from working finance analyses, or learning how to account for investments on the balance sheet. It is a challenge that cannot be mastered easily or with a long night of cramming. Make no mistake: Mendoza students are top notch at what they do, but in the same way they are rarely asked to produce a well-written essay, they are not challenged linguistically either. Even if students never plan to work outside of the country, the simple challenge of taking a language at a college level is enough to make them think more clearly about the way they use English in both writing and speaking.

Certainly some students would be upset at the prospect of having to take a foreign language. However, it wouldn’t be worse than other classes in the business school (read: future issues, behavioral science requirements, etc.) and could potentially open up a whole slew of possibilities for a student that may have never existed. This has been the experience of a number of students I know who were able to turn some language ability into internships and jobs around the world.

Ultimately, business schools across the country teach largely the same topics. If Mendoza is to remain a top- notch business school, it could start by helping to transform its students into not just a business force, but a force ready to take on opportunities not just at home, but all around the world. This would be a competitive edge that would be hard to beat.


Jason Coleman is a senior accounting major. He can be contacted at coleman.70@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.