A Second Language is an Asset for International MBA Students

In some countries, fluency in the local lingo is a perquisite for a job in business

Part of the appeal of studying for an MBA abroad, as many students do, is to learn the local language, so as to boost their employment prospects in the country. In many countries, fluency in the local lingo is not a perquisite for a job, but it is almost always an asset that will enrich your personal life – and is sometimes a requirement for permanent residency.

But the level of proficiency required depends on the nature of the work, says Marie José Beaudin, executive director of career services at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, a bilingual Canadian city where most of the population speaks both English and French — a legacy of colonialism.

“It can be a prerequisite for any client-facing roles,” she says. “In other cases, employers are open to candidates learning the local language over time.”  

But the ability to speak a second language is always an asset, she says, and the chance to learn French or English draws overseas students to Canada who already have base-level knowledge of one of these languages.

Regardless of the location, many MBA programs are taught in English, the global language of business. But many, though not all, business schools offer free classes to help overseas students learn the local dialect. 

“Our program offers a two-week language bootcamp to incoming students before the official program begins,” says Beaudin. “There is also a language club run by the students. In addition, they can access free or low-price classes offered by the government, targeting newcomers.”

Day-to-day, it isn’t necessary for international students to speak Dutch in the Netherlands, according to Brandon Kirby, director of admissions at Rotterdam School of Management; most of the population speaks English. “However, to truly immerse oneself in the humor and idiosyncrasies of Dutch culture, having a basic understanding of the language can help,” he says.

“When they arrive in the Netherlands, international students find that people are willing to help out when trying to speak Dutch, but are also more than willing to switch to English.”

A significant number of overseas MBA students secure roles at multinational companies in the Netherlands without Dutch fluency, but Kirby adds that many graduates want to use the MBA as a catalyst for a global career.

That said, expats who want to apply for permanent residence will need to be at an “A2” proficiency, or an elementary level which typically requires between 180-200 hours of studying, to have a good chance of passing the necessary residency exams.

“We do offer Dutch courses for students to learn the language,” says Kirby. “There are also many Dutch staff at the school who interact with the students. The pronunciation of Dutch can be tough depending on one’s native language, but students are eager to learn.”

Learning the local language can be critical

It is a very different story in China, according to Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School (Ceibs), who says learning Mandarin is very important for internationals hoping to work in the country.

“For many companies, even if English is the predominate language of communication within the office, recruiters will consider your level of Mandarin as a signal of how stable your career and life is in China,” he says.

“The more confidence they have in your ability to communicate inside and outside of the office, the more confidence they will have in investing in you as an employee.”

Generally, Prashantham says the more Mandarin, the better. But the level of proficiency needed depends on the function, industry and company. In buy-side finance, for finance, all the deals will be conducted in the local language. But for a Chinese firm with global aspirations, there are more job opportunities for students with mere a conversational level of Mandarin.

At Ceibs, roughly one-third of the cohort will come from outside China, and part of the appeal will be the chance to work in the world’s second-largest economy. And to truly understand a culture and what makes people tick, you’re always going to limit yourself unless you try to learn the language, says Prashantham.

Happily, Ceibs offers a month-long Mandarin course before the MBA starts, which is a soft landing for those coming to China for the first time. After that, they can join weekly Mandarin classes tailored to their proficiency levels, followed by individual sessions with tutors.

“All international students have to graduate with the equivalent of HSK level three, the standardized test for non-Chinese people to gauge their fluency in Mandarin,” Prashantham says.

Learning a language while studying an MBA will be difficult

Fluency in French is also mandatory if you want to work in France, says Patti Brown from ESSEC Business School near Paris. “Even if you target an international company and even if the internal language is English, your co-workers will be French,” she says. “This means that you need to have a very high level of French to thrive.”

ESSEC offers French classes to MBA students but Brown warns learning a second language while studying an MBA is a hard slog: “This will require a lot of determination. Most of our students who start with French classes in the fall, have dropped them by spring.”

Of course, there are differences in spoken languages within countries. In the German capital Berlin, for example, there are plenty of companies and jobs where the spoken language is English. But in the countryside, candidates will be expected to have at least a basic level of German, says Marcel Kalis, head of career services at ESMT Berlin.

“Additionally, if you want to work in sales and deal with local clients, or you want to work in strategy consulting, the level of German needs to be high,” he adds. Students would need to reach the “B2” level in Germany, which means that you can speak and understand 80 percent of the conversations. This, he says, would give you an edge over the competition on the job market.

Regardless of your career path or location, Kalis insists that overseas students should make an effort to learn the local language. “It will make your personal and professional life more interesting. You will get more involved in social networks, get more insight into the local culture. It will only enrich your life.”


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