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Conversant in a second language

By: Robert Half

"Habla usted espanol?" ("Do you speak Spanish?")

"Nihongo o wakarismasu ka?" ("Do you understand Japanese?")

As we increasingly become a global economy, these questions are more frequently asked of job candidates in all sectors of business. It may not be a prerequisite for new accountants entering the professional field to be, at least, conversant in a second language, but it surely is a valuable additional attribute; it becomes more so with each passing year.

Not long ago, American business executives predicted that Japanese would become the most useful second language in the future of business. This prediction was the finding of a 1989 Accountemps survey of 150 executives from the nation's 1,000 largest companies. The 1989 study, while pointing to Japanese as the future's most important second language, named Spanish as being the most important.

In a similar 1997 survey, far fewer of the respondents felt that Japanese would be the second language of choice in the years ahead. Spanish ranked the highest by a wide margin (63%), with Japanese (16%) coming in a distant second. (Spanish, in the 1989 survey, won by a narrower margin over Japanese.)

Why this change? Many factors probably contributed to it, including the many Japanese businessmen and women who increased their fluency in English. Latin America, European countries in which Spanish is the national language, and countries with an increase in Spanish speaking populations are rapidly emerging as major players in the global economy. In the United States, the Hispanic population continues to grow. These are all good reasons for learning to communicate in Spanish.

There is a broader implication for new accountants who are leaving behind their academic years and entering the workforce. The ability to speak a second language has always been prized, not only in business situations, but also as part of our daily lives. Those persons who have traveled to other countries quickly become aware of the local citizens' positive response to foreigners who are able to speak and comprehend their language. It's very similar to a job candidate who takes the time to learn, prior to the interview, about the company with which he or she is applying; it demonstrates initiative and interest.

It has always been claimed that children learn other languages with greater ease than adults. That's probably true. However, this claim doesn't imply that we lose the ability to become fluent in another language as we get older. Every person has the capacity to learn another language and should do so. In my opinion, a second language would not only add a valuable asset to offer prospective employers, but it would enrich one's life.

A friend and accountant who has been working in the profession for six years and speaks and understands Spanish with some fluency, recently enjoyed a vacation in Mexico City. While there, over lunch, he happened to overhear a conversation at an adjacent table between two Mexican businessmen who were discussing the imminent expansion of their company. Eventually, my friend and the businessmen got into a friendly discussion of non-business topics that led to the subject of their company and its plans for growth, including the opening of a subsidiary in the United States. I'm sure that you've already figured out the ending. My friend was hired at a considerable raise in salary, along with an enhanced title and greater responsibility.

I am not saying that if you learn a second language, you will have a chance meeting that results in a bigger and better job. However, it behooves everyone launching a professional career to arm themselves with as much marketable skill as possible. A second language is certainly one of these skills. Take advantage of community college courses, or foreign language classes through local adult education courses. Use the multitude of self-help language training systems that are currently available.

So, for now, "Adios amigos, and sayonara!"

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