|I know from my own experience that learning to speak a foreign language is one of the hardest things you can do as an adult. When I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s, I attended a number of Cantonese classes (more of a social event for well meaning expatriates who gave up quickly when the going got tough!) and, like many Brits, I learnt basic French at school until I was allowed to take Economics instead. Travelling around the world in my late teens I found that I could get away with speaking English in most countries, including in Asia, and whilst I never made a conscious decision about this, it seems I convinced myself that I could get away with speaking English in many of the places that mattered, at least back then.|
It’s a shame that I wasn’t forced to learn a foreign language, as is the case for the 1.5 billion people around the world who have no choice but to learn English to (amongst other things) build their careers in multi-national organisations or to do business in foreign countries, especially in the west. I recently witnessed a German journalist in conversation with a Chinese executive which was conducted in perfect English, a language which was one of many languages spoken by both of them, but the only one they had in common.
With the rapidly changing world we live in, it’s quite possible that new technology will allow us to speak in any language by simply talking into a smartphone or by inserting a computer chip into our brains. I guess anything’s possible. But, by doing so, future generations will miss out on the rich cultural, historical and linguistic experience that comes from doing the hard work of learning a foreign language.
This recently updated infographic from Visual Capitalist “All World Languages in One Visualization” caught my attention as it shows the variety and diversity of all languages spoken around the world. It’s unlikely that the high flying executives and entrepreneurs of the future will get away with speaking just one single language. Smart multilingual millennials will be in strong demand as they navigate their careers through multi-national organisations and flaunt their linguistic dexterity in both developed and emerging countries.