Multilingualism is good for the economy

Multilingualism is not only good for our brain, our overall flexibility and open mindedness, it is also good for the economy. 

That countries like the UK with relatively “poor language skills” loses “the equivalent of 3,5% of its GDP every year” for exactly this reason whereas Switzerland, with its four national languages (German, French, Italian Rumantsch), “attributes 10% of its GDP to its multilingual heritage” is a fact.

Why is knowing other languages so important? Isn’t it enough to know English?
No, because knowing the other language is more than knowing its grammar… 

A study of small and medium-size companies in Sweden, Germany, Denmark and France found that those which invested more in languages were able to export more goods. German companies that invested heavily in multilingual staff added 10 export countries to their market. Companies that invested less said they missed out on contracts. (see: Speaking more than one language can boost economic growth)

Knowing the language of your business partner allows you to understand his/her culture, the way to approach issues, discuss – make business. In fact, it is knowing the “business language” which includes habits, beliefs, how meetings are done, what is expected from you, what you should avoid at all costs… can save you time and money.

You may object that “if everyone speaks English, we don’t need to know their language and all these details about the culture”– that’s exactly the point where many companies are wrong.

Your business partner may be fluent in English, even have no apparent accent, but he/she will still decide based on her or his cultural values, beliefs and assumptions.

Knowing the other language and some of the culture gives you the cognitive power, the understanding that is necessary to not jump onto wrong conclusions.

If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (Willy Brandt)


In her essay Multilingual Skills provide Export Benefits and Better Access to New Emerging Markets, Ingela Bel Habib shares the results of her comparative study of small and medium-sized Swedish, Danish, French and German enterprises, and observed that:

“Swedish SME companies use mainly the English language and to some extent, German and French and therefore tend to export to neighboring markets, particularly Scandinavia. On the other hand small-and medium-sized companies in Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, France and Portugal use up to between 8 and 12 market languages, which gives them better access to emerging markets. – In addition, the percentage of companies having a multilingual export strategy are at 27% in Sweden compared to 68% among Danish SMEs, 63% in Germany and 40% in France. This means that the percentage of firms missing export contracts due to language barriers are much higher in Sweden and are 20%, compared to 4% for Denmark, 8% for Germany and 13% for France.”

Furthermore, her study shows that “multilingualism is more complicated than the current belief that English is the only market language. Small- and medium-sized enterprises are using to an ever increasing extent the specific language of the export market to establish themselves in new emerging markets” – these languages for this study are English, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Chinese.

The British Chambers of Commerce and The National Centre for Languages have launched the model of  micro-economic analysis which points out the link between the lack of language skills and exports effects.


Effects of lack of language skills on export (The National Centre for Languages, 2009).


I highly recommend reading Ingela Bel Habib’s study to get all the details of variables, measurements and data that leads her to the following conclusion:

“In the short term, efforts need to be made reducing language barriers to market entry and facilitating the small-and medium-sized companies access to new emerging markets through supporting and financing professional development programs and language training.

Longer-term measures concern in particular the adaptation of education to the needs of employers through education to a greater number of languages, particularly at secondary and university levels. The languages of the migrant employees also provide a shortcut to multilingualism in order to increase small-and medium-sized companies’ exports to new emerging markets.”


In short: “multilingualism and economic competitiveness are closely linked” and measures should be taken at educational level. 

And, I may add, that in order to succeed, you don’t only need to be able to communicate in the other language, you need to know the “cultural grammar” too, the invisible rules of communication that determine the interpersonal behavior in other cultures


Quoted articles:

Ingela Bel Habib, Multilingual Skills provide Export Benefits and Better Access to New Emerging Markets, on the site Sens Public, 2011.


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