What do Mauritius, Malaysia, and Singapore have in common? Besides being examples of highly competitive emerging economies, these countries have multilingual populations which they proudly count as part of their country’s competitive advantage.
Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Most Honourable Andrew Holness, recently announced his government’s hope to adopt Spanish as a second language given the longstanding and growing importance of foreign direct investment (FDI) from Spain to Jamaica’s economy. Spanish chains are a growing presence in Jamaica’s tourism, wellness and construction sectors and have injected US$1.7 billion in Jamaica’s tourist industry, according to the Prime Minister in his speech.
Similar statements on the need for improving our populations’ language competencies have also been made by current and previous Commonwealth Caribbean governments. Could the promotion of bilingualism give our hitherto monolingual Commonwealth Caribbean countries a trade and investment edge in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace?
‘Everyone speaks English!” Or do they?
I am not aware of any data on the rates of bilingualism (that is, proficiency in two or more languages) in the Commonwealth Caribbean. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that aside from local dialects, anglophone Caribbean countries have mostly monolingual (one language) populations.
It is not uncommon to hear some persons strongly proclaim “everyone speaks English, so why must I learn another language?”. Though English is currently the most learnt second language internationally, this chart from the World Economic Forum shows that English is actually the third most spoken mother tongue in the world, with 372 million first-language speakers in 2017. The second most spoken language was Spanish, with 437 million speakers. But the most spoken was Chinese (Mandarin) with 1,284 million speakers, which is not surprising given the population of China.
While the English language has been the global lingua franca since the 20th century, it has not always been, and it may not always be either given China’s growing economic dominance and promotion of its culture and language. In recognition of this fact, China Daily has reported that there is growing interest in western countries for learning Mandarin. In Russia, for example, the number of Chinese language learners has reportedly increased from 17,000 in 2007 to 56,000 in 2017 and Mandarin is now an elective language in that country’s national college entrance examination.
That aside, the Commonwealth Caribbean is surrounded not only by its Spanish, French and Dutch speaking Caribbean island neighbors, but also Spanish-speaking Latin American countries and Portuguese-speaking Brazil, which present still largely undertapped export and tourist markets.
Bilingualism enhances labour force quality
There is a corpus of research highlighting the cognitive, psychological and social advantages to human beings learning a second language. These include sharpened memory, improved decision-making skills, multi-tasking capability, problem-solving and mental dexterity. Knowledge of another language also increases a person’s employability, cultural sensitivity, earning potential and labour market opportunities. As a multilingual person, I can personally attest to the doors which knowledge of other languages have opened for me professionally.
Internationally, employers’ demand for bilingual persons has increased not only as trade with other countries has increased, but because of the recognition by firms of the benefits to their export strategies of employing bilingual persons. A report of March 2017 by New American Economy found that demand for bilingual workers in the US is growing at both the higher and lower ends of the employment spectrum. This is further supported by a report by the Economic Intelligence Unit, which surveyed 572 executives globally and found that organisations with international ambitions were increasingly expecting prospective employees to be fluent in key foreign languages.
Taken as a whole, improving a population’s language competency makes for a more attractive labour force to international investors. This advantage has not gone unrecognized by some countries. Mauritius, whose population speaks French, English and French Creole, proudly touts its bilingual population as one of its unique selling points as a place for international business. In Switzerland, which has four national languages, a report from 2008 estimated that country’s linguistic advantage as equivalent to about 9% of its GDP.
In an increasingly interconnected world, I believe monolingualism will put our human resource, which is our greatest resource, at a distinct disadvantage in attracting international investment and tourism.
Bilingualism/Biculturalism as Business Advantages in Cross-Border Transactions
Effective communication is essential to the success of cross-border deals, which means that linguistic and cultural differences are frequent barriers to cross-border trade and investment. The previously mentioned report by the Economic Intelligence Unit found that “misunderstandings rooted in cultural differences present the greatest obstacle to productive cross-border collaboration”. For instance, a handshake or kiss on the cheek may be perfectly acceptable in one culture, but may cause offense in another.
A UK-based report also found that “over time the trade cost to the UK resulting from language barriers has varied in magnitude, but has been consistently large.” While I am unaware of similar research conducted in the Commonwealth Caribbean, anecdotal evidence shows that this may also be the case here as well.
It is not uncommon for some businesses seeking to export to feel that it is not necessary to invest in developing a multilingual strategy or capacity given the increasing availability and accuracy, for example, of online translation services. However, online translation services miss subtle cultural nuances, which may be fatal when engaging in cross-border business negotiations, especially with enterprises from ‘high context cultures’. ‘High context’ is the term used in international business to describe those cultures which place greater emphasis on context, non-verbal cues and on interpersonal relations when conducting business. Examples would be most African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. ‘Low context’ cultures usually rely mainly on verbal cues, and interpersonal relationships have less importance in the business context. These cultures include many Western European countries, the US and Canada.
In the Commonwealth Caribbean most of our international trade is currently with low context cultures with which we share cultural, linguistic and historical ties. But, as our firms seek to diversify, and as China (a high context culture) expands its economic footprint in the region, there will be need for greater understanding of the Chinese language and culture.
Prior knowledge of the language and cultural norms of a target export market is also invaluable when conducting market research into the business, legal and regulatory environment of that potential export market.
Bilingualism can foster wider Caribbean integration
Promoting bilingualism can foster closer Caribbean integration. By accident of geography, the Caribbean Region is divided by water. By accident of history, these divisions are furthered by language. However, greater linguistic and cultural awareness among our islands can bridge these divisions.
As an example, the French-speaking island of Martinique is one of the top tourist source markets for St. Lucia, its neighbor just 40 miles to the south. Its tourist and business ties with Martinique are facilitated not just by geography and reliable transportation links, but also the mutual intelligibility of the Martinican and St. Lucian creoles and some shared cultural similarities. St. Lucia, nicknamed Helen of the West, changed colonial hands fourteen times between France and England, giving the island a unique culture and patois which is a mélange of its French and English colonial roots.
A new programme called the Trade Enhancement for the Eastern Caribbean (TEECA) programme seeks to promote trade and investment between Member States of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Martinique, which became an OECS associate member in 2015. The success of this programme will undoubtedly hinge on OECS firms seeking to create or expand business with those in Martinique having an understanding of the Martinican cultural, business and legal context and knowledge of the French language.
Building a Bilingual Advantage
Promoting greater language competency among our populations could bring trade and investment advantages to Caribbean countries which rely disproportionately on their human resource. While not a panacea, it can provide for a more employable and attractive labour force, facilitate our export market diversification efforts, strengthen integration with the non-anglophone Caribbean and improve trade and investment ties with the wider LAC region
Of course, creating a bilingual society cannot happen overnight. First of all, we need to determine what language competencies our Governments will seek to promote. Spanish and French are increasingly being taught in Commonwealth Caribbean secondary schools, but should Mandarin also be included on the curriculum?
Moreover, expanding language instruction at the primary school level would be key, as well as promoting greater cultural exchanges. Languages should not be seen solely as subjects for study, but as a door to further business opportunities, creating an edge for our people in an increasingly interconnected and competitive global environment.
As it is firms which trade and not countries, it is incumbent on regional firms to increase their in-house language capacity by employing persons with the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge of their export target markets, and also, where appropriate, invest in developing the language proficiency of their existing staff.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.