Though Ernst says English is generally the language of business, it would be limiting to assume that everyone you work with abroad will speak it.
He also points out that learning a language is much more difficult after graduation. “It is better to use your time in college to practice with international students or to go abroad and get firsthand language experience.”
As for which language you should study, Ernst suggests students stick to a second language they have a background in since progress takes times. However, for a student with no second language exposure, he recommends studying the language with the biggest scope: Spanish.
“Some people would say that Chinese actually has the biggest scope, but you have to consider another element there – Chinese is a very difficult language to learn. Even after four years, I’m not sure that you would be able to sustain a business conversation,” he says.
Though it’s unlikely you will reach fluency in one summer, it’s a good time to get started: You won’t be distracted by other classes, and you can immerse yourself fully in the language. Even the basic language skills you develop over one summer might be enough to boost your future job application over another. Ernst says there are two levels to speaking a language: first learning to understand it and then learning to speak it. Sometimes, understanding is enough to open doors in business, he adds.
Studying abroad is another way to get language experience – and maybe some business experience at the same time. Many business schools offer study abroad programs that specifically focus on business. They partner with business schools in other countries, teach business courses, and send their students on trips to international business locations.
In fact, a report by the Institute of International Education said that in recent years, over 20% of American students studying abroad have been business majors. This high percentage reflects the emphasis that business schools place on international experience.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School actively encourages study abroad and developed a 10-day, half-credit international course as a teaser to encourage students to go abroad for a full semester. The program has grown into an international experience in its own right.
By and large, business schools have acknowledged that studying abroad has both educational and career benefits, and students often return with new independence, international connections, and new perspectives on business. In any case, it will probably do more for your career than staying home.
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