The expressions “ni hoa”, “al salaam a’alaykum” and “namaste” might not mean much to most South Africans, but as the new world economies develop rapidly, the value of being able to greet people in Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi is rising. Being multilingual is an increasingly important business skill as world markets become more globalised and interconnected than ever before.
Although the significance of other languages is increasing, English remains the leading international language with more than 1.5 billion speakers, of whom over 80% are not first-language speakers.
This prolific growth of English is both a result and cause of globalisation. The boom in international trade has brought people from all cultures and countries together to exchange goods and services.
The dominance of English over other languages can in many ways be ascribed to the importance of the American economy in facilitating international trade, especially after the Second World War.
“In much the same way that the dollar remains the preferred currency, English will remain the preferred language for the foreseeable future,” Jan Fidrmuc, a lecturer in communications at Brunel University recently commented.
However, in the wake of the recession other languages linked to some of the most important developing economies have come into the global spotlight. Mandarin, China’s official tongue is the second most widely used language in business after English with more than 845 million speakers.
Struan Mathewson, who graduated from Rhodes with a degree in Chinese and Economics, stresses the importance of being able to communicate with people in their own language.
“South Africa’s trade with China is expanding daily and being able to speak the language gives you the knowledge to build the personal relationships that are absolutely crucial in negotiations.”
* This piece was written as a requirement for a course in the Economics and Economic History Department at Rhodes University