What Asian language skills do you really need?

Is Australia on track to participate in the Asian century?

If time spent working in Asia is the best way to get ahead, do you need to speak Asian languages?

In his 14 years in Japan, Paul Butler worked his way up from a financial accountant to finance director roles and attributes much of his success to his ability to speak the local language.

Butler worked as a finance director for a couple of English health products companies, where Japanese was the language spoken in the workplace.

“In my case, the fact that I could speak Japanese made it a lot easier for them to hire me,” he says.

As Australia’s economy becomes more dependent on Asia and business ties between the two regions get closer, the career benefits of speaking Asian languages are increasingly coming into focus.

Anyone hoping to have a sustained career in Asia will have an advantage if they can speak to the locals in their own tongue, says Butler, who arrived back in Australia late last year and is working part-time while he completes his CPA qualifications.

“With accountants and lawyers and other professionals, it’s not just what you know, it’s how well you communicate with your workmates and other people, and that’s limited if you’re not able to communicate in their language,” he says.

“I found in Japan that once the local people realised that I could communicate in Japanese they were far more comfortable working with me.

“The Japanese tend to be quite afraid of having to use English around Westerners, but if they realise you can speak Japanese, that breaks down the barriers and they feel a lot more comfortable. And in a professional environment where communication is the key, it really pays to have at least a working knowledge of the language.”

Butler says it’s not so important to know an Asian language in Singapore and Hong Kong, where English is widely spoken, but it can be a significant advantage in Japan, China and South Korea.

The earlier on in their career in Asia that people start studying a language the better, because as they rise up the career ladder they won’t have the time, adds Butler, who initially learned Japanese while teaching English in Japan part-time.

Knowing the language is important even when working in English-speaking offices, says Butler, who describes it as “the icing on the cake”.

“The cake has to be your technical skills, but having the language on top can just put you ahead of other people in terms of competing for jobs or looking to go ahead in that market,” he says. “It’s not an absolute prerequisite but it’s nice to have – it opens up doors and it makes communication a whole lot easier.”

Does culture trump language?

Michael Bencsik FCPA spent seven years as Head of UK, Europe, Middle East & Global Business, Group Strategy & Planning at HSBC. He was based in London but travelled extensively to the 70 different countries for which he was responsible.

He says that having an understanding of a country’s culture is more important than knowing the local language.

“Cultural awareness is more crucial in dealing with other individuals and customers in these sorts of countries,” he says. “The key to it is how you apply your own values and beliefs, and empathy and acceptance of difference.”

English was the predominant language for HSBC throughout Asia. While a local language could help with communication, there are more important ways of engaging people and customers, says Bencsik, who recently returned to Australia.

“Certainly making an effort to speak the language gets you some way, but it’s not going to necessarily be the complete advantage,” he says. “How you accept a business card with both hands in certain countries, for example, and knowing what the etiquette is in dealing with people is more respectful.”

He adds that people in some other countries will accept that foreign business people don’t know the language “but if you’re totally ignorant of what’s important to those individuals you’re never going to get past first base”.

Even learning a language might not necessarily give a professional all the cultural nuances they need until they arrive. “You can learn the language [in your home country], but you’re not going to learn about the country. You’ve physically got to live or spend some time there,” he adds.

“You’ve got to spend some time dealing with the locals to understand how to get things done.”

It’s the Asian century. Are we ready?

The issue is not merely an individual one, argues Australian accounting body CPA Australia. “Government urgently needs to place a higher priority on access to, and knowledge of, Asian markets and Asian literacy in the workforce,” Former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley said at a recent National Press Club launch of the organisation’s ground-breaking research into Australian competitiveness.

“In order to make Australian students more ready for the Asian century, a greater emphasis should be placed on Asian studies and languages,” said Malley. “[Merely] giving all students the ‘option’ to study a priority Asian language by 2025 is too little, too late.

“On the government’s most ambitious objective, the first cohort of kids to take up the option of Asian language education won’t be graduating from high school until around 2037. China will already be into its second decade as the world’s most powerful economy.

“Our best, most ambitious plan has us on track to miss the boat by 22 years.”

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