Polyglots Wanted: The Business Case for Multilingualism

Growing up at the foot of the Swiss Alps, I was raised to think for myself—and also to think (and speak) in German, Italian, French, and English. I realize now what a gift it was to live in a truly multilingual environment. Switzerland has four national languages — German (both High German and Swiss German) spoken by approximately 63% of the population, French (spoken by about 23%), and Italian (spoken by roughly 8%). Romansh is spoken by less than 1% of the total population.

Despite both the ‘Röstigraben’ (= rösti ditch, geographically running along the Saane/Sarine river) which focuses on the differences between the Swiss Germans and the Romands (Swiss French), and Swiss Italians’ frustration that visiting Swiss Germans rarely speak Italian, life in the Alpine country is quite harmonious. In fact, for Swiss citizens, the cultural and linguistic diversity actually contributes to their national pride. A culture of celebrating differences? What a concept!

To further support its linguistic diversity, Switzerland implemented educational policies in the 1970’s requiring schools to teach students a second national language. The success of such policies has helped keep Swiss multilingualism strong: Most cantons now mandate both English and an additional national language in primary school.

In business, a rapidly increasing number of foreign companies headquartered in tax-friendly Swiss cantons (the member states of the Swiss confederation) are recruiting employees from abroad. Many Swiss businesses use English to communicate with offices in different speaking areas of Switzerland and/or abroad. English serves as a neutral (language) territory, avoiding a battle over choosing in which national language to communicate.

Even though the country’s four languages are the foundation of its identity, English is taking a complementary role.

Academia also broadened its English offering in order to attract more international students and faculty. As a result, mastering the English language gives Swiss employees a competitive advantage in the workplace. With 23 official languages spoken in Europe, whose total area is smaller than North America, the more languages you speak, the greater your competitive advantage. Customers appreciate correspondence in the language they feel most comfortable speaking.

During my years in the banking industry in Brussels, I addressed Swiss French clients in French and Swiss Germans in German. Besides ensuring proper understanding, this created a stronger rapport with clients and helped foster the business relationship. Client retention rates and repeat business grew through linguistically customized services.

The LEAP (“Langues étrangères dans l’activité professionelle”) project, headed by Professor Grin at the University of Geneva, studied how languages generate economic value. In Switzerland, where employees typically operate in three or more languages, the “linguistic skills value” has been calculated at CHF 46 billion ($47 billion) or 10% of its GDP.

Prof. Grin’s studies confirmed the importance of English as the world business language, but found that other languages were used extensively as intermediary languages. There is still a need for diversity in languages spoken if business relationships are to be built successfully.

At Tell Language Solutions, we’re proud to be polyglots: Our local linguists ensure that nothing is lost in translation when you address your customers in their preferred language.