Japan Today

How big are the benefits for bilingual speakers?

By Maxine Cheyney for BCCJ ACUMEN

Globalisation has long been a feature of business discourse, and one of the pivotal factors in it is communication. Languages bridge the synapses in the global community, allowing information to flow and ideas to be shared across international communities.

Given the growing global stature of Asian firms, individuals who have invested time in studying non-European languages are increasingly seeing greater returns. In its study on the highest paying languages of 2017, British job advert website Adzuna claims that Japanese and Chinese are the most lucrative tongues for jobseekers in the United Kingdom, with Japanese ranking as the top-paying language for the year at an average salary of £32,355. Both languages saw average salaries rise by more than 15% compared with 2016 levels.

As Japanese firms continue their global expansion, communication skills are becoming ever more crucial at home, too. As a result, many Japanese are seeing the value of learning English to work abroad or for large globalised firms.

“A second language is important due to the increasing globalisation of the Japanese economy and the need to be able to communicate with offices and clients in other countries”, explained Michael Craven, business director at the recruitment agency Hays Japan.

But learning a language is a significant undertaking. When it comes to Japanese, just understanding the three independent writing systems—kanji, hiragana and katakana—is challenge enough, even before learning to read and write at a level that is sufficient for business purposes. But given the time and effort it takes to learn a language, one might well ask whether the benefits are always assured.

Bilingual benefits

Speaking a second language opens up a number of new roles and occupations for those seeking employment outside their home country.

“Speaking business-level Japanese greatly increases your employability as many jobs and industries focused on the domestic market are closed to you without it”, said Kris Kullengren, academic director at Education First Japan K.K.

But the benefits can go beyond greater compensation and wider job opportunities for employees. They can offer something for firms, too.

Understanding a second language is also a route to better understanding a different culture. The culture of Japan, for example, is considered complex, highly nuanced and difficult to understand without knowledge of the language. That familiarity, in turn, can lead to greater adaptability, and on a cognitive level, bilingual abilities also lend themselves to a different and more flexible approach to work.

“Bilingual staff tend to approach problems in a more creative and flexible way than people who only speak one language”, Kullengren explained. “This is most likely related to having a wider range of experiences to draw from and having spoken with people from very different backgrounds and outlooks on life”.

According to an article by Swiss non-profit foundation the World Economic Forum, a study involving bilingual and monolingual children showed that those with bilingual skills had an increased ability to switch between tasks and empathise with different people. And a Princeton University study published in August indicated that bilingual infants enjoyed cognitive benefits throughout their life.

Business needs

The increasingly online and tech-orientated business environment is another aspect to consider when it comes to the benefits of being bilingual. In this regard, Kullengren argues that English in particular has unrivalled importance.

“Your customer base is now not limited to geography, and I would put forward the fact that more than 50% of all content on the Internet is in English”, he said. “With a command of the English language, you literally have the knowledge of half of humanity at your fingertips”.

Although Adzuna’s study shows a link between Japanese language skills and better work compensation, in many cases that skill alone would not be sufficient for many jobs. Indeed, Craven argues that, although bilingual proficiency is a bonus, it is nothing without work experience and a skill set.

“I have seen many people fail in their roles when their employers have realised, after some time, that the candidate only had bilingual skills, and the other skills needed were not present”, he said.

It is a point Kullengren echoed. “Compensation in the world of international business seems to be, at least from my own experience, based heavily on performance”.

Custom Media publishes BCCJ ACUMEN for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.


©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Key point at the end there. You have to be a complete package.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

The nature of bilingualism is also not what it used to be even 10-15 years ago. Technology makes reading and writing ability much less impressive now. Speaking effortlessly and without hesitation is what bilingualism seems to demand these days. You can no longer get away with: 'My speaking is not so good, but my reading and writing are great'.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Totally agree Reckless. Bilingualism cuts both ways depending on your work environment and where you are on the career ladder. It can propel you forward or it can hold you back. Personally, I prefer to practice 'stealth bilingualism'. I use it and flaunt it when it really matters but otherwise deny it and claim to be a beginner.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

As another white guy from a western background, (this website is clearly full of white privilege ;) ) I actually find it a bit off putting to use formal Japanese.

Because the language and culture in Japan are structured around hierarchy it actually makes me feel uneasy using words that are supposed to humble or raise people depending on their age or social status.

Don't get me wrong I don't think being polite is a bad thing, but sometimes i feel like the Japanese language is specifically designed to reinforce power relationships, and to be honest i don't think such relationships have much place is modern society anymore, i don't think anyone regardless of their social status in society should be considered above or below other people.

Also as far as respect goes, i was once told that respect is something you earn not something your given and whilst we can all treat each other with respect, you shouldn't force people into respecting someone with language or any other means.

I think even if my keigo was proficient (which it isn't) i wouldn't want to use. If you look at the English language we also used to use language focused on status, mainly in the days when their were Kings and Queens and Earls and Lords, however recently people have generally done away with formalities in English, i don't meet many people who say "how do you ?" Or "begging your pardon sir".

I think if you started speaking %100 percent fluent Japanese as reckless said, people would then use that as a way to take advantage of you, depending on where you are in the social structure. Does language give you an advantage, yes it does but do you want to use that language to work for a Japanese company where the hours are long due to inefficient work methods and pointless meetings with ass kissing galore, probably not. I think this would only be useful as a westerner working on behalf of a foreign company in Japan.

That's my two cents, sure i will get ripped about my lack of cultural awareness and the old of you don't like it go home.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Some Japanese reading and writing and speaking is a definite plus.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

It is a point Kullengren echoed. “Compensation in the world of international business seems to be, at least from my own experience, based heavily on performance”. - But that is certainly not the case. Many CEOs have presided over companies that have made losses but they never get penalized.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I tell my kids, when you learn a new language, you don't just learn A language, an entire country of culture, art, history and people is open for you to explore! Economic value is not the metric people use in deciding whether a language is worth learning or not, because Chinese is clearly economically valuable, but I don't see people learning it in droves.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

At the end of the day considering increased stress and hours, I made less when I tried to be bilingual and ran out of gas to study more. and thats exactly why my wife never stated she has english ability in the last 2 companies she worked for. J companies just take advantage of you not paying extra for the extra skills you may have. Since her last name is foreign these companies new she was married to a native English speaker, when they approached her to do some translation she told them straight if you want me to use skills that was not in the job description Ill need to be paid more, never got asked to do translations again. LOL

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think if you started speaking %100 percent fluent Japanese as reckless said, people would then use that as a way to take advantage of you, oh how true that is, my Japanese while average at best, I always try to use as little as possible. While a long term resident of japan , having the image as a noob gaijin tourist has its value and it cuts through much of the BS explanations as to why things cant get or wont get done, because thats not the way we do things in Japan. Last two times I got caught speeding, the noob gaijin tourist act got me off both times. LOL

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It works both ways.

The landscape of Tokyo is littered with the carcasses of dead foreign companies that hired a Japanese country manager because he spoke some English, only to find that he lacked the business skills to lead the entity.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I have students who always boast that they understand english and can comprehend written english as well as write for themselves but can't speak a lot. I think part of that is true but its mostly false as most of them can't write an essay or short story keeping their ideas centered and in order. Also most of the grammar they learn here to me always seems to be a bit off. Many textbooks for junior and high school kids are packed full of sentences and phrases that I question, when would or in what situation would I ever say that?

Im sorry but the whole english education here in Japan needs to be erased and they need to focus one style of english, meaning either British or American grammar and spelling and stop confusing the students so they can progress in a more positive manner. I get very frustrated when I have helped a student learn something but they come back to my school saying their school teacher said that is wrong! Then the whole national test system is far under par for actually testing the ability of the students and pass people with very low ability but they can used those results to attain status and job security. This kind of frustrates me as a teacher.

Culturally there are too many idioms, phrases, and metaphors in the English language that even my most proficient students can't get off the bat without me having to explain them. There is still a huge gap between what bilingual means because in the business world you can't make mistakes that leaves customers pondering whats going on! Then, I think verbal Japanese in general is a very vague language and it seems to me that even a lot of Japanese people themselves are lost at times speaking their native tongue. hahahaha!!!

When Im out in town I only use my Japanese if its necessary, as an English teacher Im always testing the English ability of people working in shops and on the street to better my understanding of where the majority of Japan lies for its English fluency. From my perspective 98.4% of the population still can't put together a proper sentence despite having at least 6 years of English and most likely more given the fact most continue to study after high school as well.

To fully understand a second language you must emerge yourself in the culture, there is just no way around it. Its almost impossible to become fluent in a language unless you have lived in the country or grown up around the culture enough to understand inside jokes or cultural references. Not having lived in the US for over 15 years, I too am stumped at things said and things talked about when Im home. Pop culture especially!!

Last, for Japanese students and education for English here in this country, I feel it needs to be an elective for the students who really want to learn English. Most of my high school students complain to me about their class environment after I question them. They say the reason the level of English is so low is simple because there are too many students in the classroom who have no interest in learning. A second language is an art form learning to articulate in our own way not to just follow what others do or what you think you need to do to impress your teacher. Learning and educating is for the individual but I think this also is a concept that does't exist here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A lot of Jobs ask for Native Japanese Speakers... so no matter how good you are, if you're not Native, then forget it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Some people have raised very good points here, especially the point that actually being bilingual can be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. especially where business is concerned and financial renumeration is not commensurate with having bilingual skills.The question is can a bilingual person survive in any country or economy to an extent that they are able to do as well as,if not better than the average native?

The only way to do this is to have a skill set that encompasses business, science, the arts, etc.

An entrepreneurial streak allied with good communication skills and confidence is also advantageous .......

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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