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Working abroad: Is it necessary to learn the local language?

People take pictures at Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional village in Seoul on June 5, 2012.


As Asia's tiger and tiger cub economies grow in importance, Western professionals are spending time in the region to gain valuable experience, develop local talent, and court new revenue streams, writes Natasha Stidder. But how important is learning the language?

The answer might depend on the role itself. There tends to be less pressure on those in very technical or executive-level posts to learn the local language.

Their focus is on skills, and they tend to live in the region for a few years, leading some to argue there is little benefit to learning the language, as English is widely spoken in the business environment.

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But Christel Heydemann disagrees. As vice-president of human resources and transformation for Alcatel-Lucent, she will not send anyone to a region who does not have a basic understanding of the local language.

The only exceptions are for a few specific roles. In these cases, someone who can demonstrate experience or knowledge of the region is preferable.

While English remains Alcatel-Lucent's official business language, it is keen to ensure local languages are used in regional offices.

Ms. Heydemann puts it simply: "You can't do business in China if you can't speak Chinese."

However, Rob McGill, senior manager at global services provider Turner and Townsend, says the decision should be based on more than just business need.

Working as a chartered surveyor in South Korea, he is the only foreigner in an office of 30 but regularly finds himself speaking English.

In fact, he says there is a stigma attached to being unable to speak English, and he has met few expatriates who could conduct business in Korean.

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But he admits an ability to speak the local language becomes vital for functioning outside the office.

"Taxis were always a problem. I couldn't give directions and explain where I needed to go," he says.

"My Korean boss was pleasantly surprised when I said I wanted to learn Korean, so the company paid for private tuition. I had lessons for two hours a week, and for the first six months I spent a lot of time with my tutor."

While Mr. McGill has some way to go ("I can't have a deep conversation"), his Korean has improved to a level at which taxi drivers assume he is fluent.

Learning a language takes time - immersion is not enough - and this can often be a problem: professionals are sent to do a job and can find it hard to fit in structured learning. Being in the region for only a few years can also make it seem a costly investment, both in terms of time and money.

David Michael, senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group, has spent many years in Asia, and currently heads up BCG's global advantage practice in Beijing.

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While he acknowledges language is not essential for many roles in the region, he learnt Mandarin early in his career and believes more people should be encouraged to do so, before work takes over and time becomes short.

"It's important to get the foundations of a language in a focused way, which is hard to do in the workplace," he says. "You need at least a year of dedicated study. So companies need to help employees by allowing them to carve out time."

Businesses almost always offer help and assistance to expatriates wanting to learn a local language, and many encourage it as way to help improve ties with local employees.

Once learnt, professionals are advised to try to "go deep", embracing language and sector-related terminology in the workplace.

For those willing to make the effort, expatriates agree that speaking the local language does not go unnoticed. It helps professionals stand out in the eyes of local people, crosses cultural divides and develops a connection.

And as employees become more mobile, the ability to speak an Asian language is growing in importance as a business asset. This is especially the case in Taiwan and Singapore, where a larger Chinese work force is emerging.

With the development of digital tools for learning, such as online tutoring, podcasts and apps, Mr. Michaels believes there has never been a better time to take up an Asian language. And after recent trade agreements between the region, the U.S. and Europe, it can stand a career in good stead.

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