HR & Recruitment August 2017

More than money

How big are the benefits for bilingual speakers?

  • Japanese is the top-paying language in the UK
  • Bilingual staff are more creative and flexible
  • Other job skills still needed

Globalisation has long been a feature of business discourse, and one of the pivotal factors in it is communication. Languages bridge the synapses in the global community, allowing information to flow and ideas to be shared across international communities.

Given the growing global stature of Asian firms, individuals who have invested time in studying non-European languages are increasingly seeing greater returns. In its study on the highest paying languages of 2017, British job advert website Adzuna claims that Japanese and Chinese are the most lucrative tongues for jobseekers in the United Kingdom, with Japanese ranking as the top-paying language for the year at an average salary of £32,355. Both languages saw average salaries rise by more than 15% compared with 2016 levels.

As Japanese firms continue their global expansion, communication skills are becoming ever more crucial at home, too. As a result, many Japanese are seeing the value of learning English to work abroad or for large globalised firms.
“A second language is important due to the increasing globalisation of the Japanese economy and the need to be able to communicate with offices and clients in other countries”, explained Michael Craven, business director at the recruitment agency Hays Japan.

But learning a language is a significant undertaking. When it comes to Japanese, just understanding the three independent writing systems—kanji, hiragana and katakana—is challenge enough, even before learning to read and write at a level that is sufficient for business purposes. But given the time and effort it takes to learn a language, one might well ask whether the benefits are always assured.

Bilingual benefits
Speaking a second language opens up a number of new roles and occupations for those seeking employment outside their home country.

“Speaking business-level Japanese greatly increases your employability as many jobs and industries focused on the domestic market are closed to you without it”, said Kris Kullengren, academic director at Education First Japan K.K.

But the benefits can go beyond greater compensation and wider job opportunities for employees. They can offer something for firms, too.

Understanding a second language is also a route to better understanding a different culture. The culture of Japan, for example, is considered complex, highly nuanced and difficult to understand without knowledge of the language. That familiarity, in turn, can lead to greater adaptability, and on a cognitive level, bilingual abilities also lend themselves to a different and more flexible approach to work.

“Bilingual staff tend to approach problems in a more creative and flexible way than people who only speak one language”, Kullengren explained. “This is most likely related to having a wider range of experiences to draw from and having spoken with people from very different backgrounds and outlooks on life”.

According to an article by Swiss non-profit foundation the World Economic Forum, a study involving bilingual and monolingual children showed that those with bilingual skills had an increased ability to switch between tasks and empathise with different people. And a Princeton University study published in August indicated that bilingual infants enjoyed cognitive benefits throughout their life.

Business needs
The increasingly online and tech-orientated business environment is another aspect to consider when it comes to the benefits of being bilingual. In this regard, Kullengren argues that English in particular has unrivalled importance.

“Your customer base is now not limited to geography, and I would put forward the fact that more than 50% of all content on the Internet is in English”, he said. “With a command of the English language, you literally have the knowledge of half of humanity at your fingertips”.

Although Adzuna’s study shows a link between Japanese language skills and better work compensation, in many cases that skill alone would not be sufficient for many jobs. Indeed, Craven argues that, although bilingual proficiency is a bonus, it is nothing without work experience and a skill set.

“I have seen many people fail in their roles when their employers have realised, after some time, that the candidate only had bilingual skills, and the other skills needed were not present”, he said.

It is a point Kullengren echoed. “Compensation in the world of international business seems to be, at least from my own experience, based heavily on performance”.