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Parlez-vous MBA? A look at languages in MBA programs

October 26, 2011 1 comment

The Economist has a long-running column “Which MBA?” and a recent post talks about something with which you are all likely well acquainted: the role of foreign languages in education. The article features two French schools: INSEAD and Grenoble School of Management.

Do you think that learning foreign languages is an important factor in deciding an MBA program?

Parlez-vous MBA?
Oct 18th 2011, 16:32 by S.H.

SPEAKING three languages wasn’t enough for Lenka Menden. When it came to choosing where to study for an MBA, she wanted a chance to absorb a new culture and learn yet another tongue. “My first language is Czech, I studied for a degree in business administration in Germany and I went on to take an MSc in Prague,” she explains. “I then worked for three-and-a-half years as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf.”

Ms Menden turned down the chance of studying at London Business School, instead choosing IESE in Barcelona, because she thought it would open new doors. “Staying in London I would have been in the same environment and there wouldn’t be that many challenges. So I learned a new language alongside my MBA because Spanish is a very important language of business. I have extended my personal network to include people from Mexico, Spain and the Philippines. I can now work anywhere in Europe or in an emerging economy,” she says.

High-profile business schools still teach primarily in English. But many, especially in Europe, are beginning to realise that language tuition is a big selling point. The attraction of learning a language is two-fold. With so many alumni on the market, bi-lingualism distinguishes the exceptional MBA from the run of the mill. And in a global business, the ability to speak languages and understand cultures is vital.

INSEAD, which has campuses in France and Singapore, has a three-language requirement. Students joining its MBA programme must be fluent in English and proficient in at least one other. A third language of a student’s own choice is taught alongside the MBA. Facility in that language is a condition of being awarded an MBA. “It’s about developing a cultural sensitivity and is a way of becoming a global citizen,” says Leila Murat, the school’s assistant director of MBA admissions.

Chinese whispers
Mandarin is popular on both campuses. A quarter of students are of Asian origin and many Westerners come to the business school specifically to gain insight into doing business in China. Other emerging markets are shaping interest too: Portuguese and Russian are also becoming more popular, says Ms Murat.

Despite Anglophones’ reputation for lazyness in this area, such stringent language requirements don’t seem to be putting off English-speaking students. INSEAD has seen applications from America more than double in the past five years. Nevertheless, there are drawbacks. For one, teaching languages is expensive. The most effective method is face-to-face. That means recruiting native speakers.

But how easy is it to find a native Chinese speaker in a provincial city? At Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France, they can call on the university’s renowned languages department. But responding to students’ demands is not always easy. Japanese teachers are particularly hard to source, says Carol Gally, the school’s language co-ordinator. She says she often has to rely on the partners of people employed on the campus coming forward to teach.

Grenoble’s students are given 72 hours of language tuition over two semesters, with classes running into the early evening after the MBA teaching finishes. Compulsory French classes expose students to everyday situations, official documents and radio and television. Beginners start with the basics, such as how to shop, eat and drink. Other languages are then taught in the medium of French.

At IESE, learning Spanish is a big attraction for international students such as Ms Menden. Although the MBA is taught in English, some second-year modules are in Spanish. The school’s aim is to graduate students fluent in both languages. Ninety per cent of students pass the Spanish element and qualify for what is known as a bi-lingual MBA.

Students are advised to come to Barcelona to attend a summer language school before joining the programme. This makes them more employable, according to Javier Munoz, IESE’s admissions officer. The internships arranged through the business school demand fluency in Spanish; without considerable language skills the offers from Spanish banks, engineering firms and car manufacturers would not be forthcoming. Given the current economic situation in the country, they need all the advantages they can get.

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