Look around you. We live in a globalized, interconnected world in which we interact with people who speak different languages and view life through unique cultural perspectives. In most cases, success in these interactions will be based on our ability to bridge differences through language skills and cultural awareness.
Arianna Huffington is a poster adult for how language education and cultural understanding can pave the way to economic opportunities and personal prosperity. While growing up in Athens, Greece, she had the opportunity to study and learn English. This opened the door of Girton College in Cambridge, UK. When The Huffington Post first ventured internationally into France with Le Huffington Post two years ago in partnership with Le Monde and French media giant Les Nouvelles Editions Indépendantes, she fondly recalled that her first trip outside of Greece at the age of 11 was to Paris. She mentioned being able to "shake the rust off my French" and work with French colleagues, although she did admit to having "something of a Greek accent in French, too". She also assured the Huff community that Le Huffington Post would be in French. She reasoned, "It will, like France itself, have a very distinct personality -- it's own way of approaching the world." Arianna recognized that language and culture are powerful and necessary tools that will enable the world to understand France and the French people.
Arianna carried the same important message when she launched El Huffington Post in Spain last year in partnership with El Pais. Her goal was "to invite readers in Spain and Spanish speakers throughout the world -- as well as those who care about Spain's people, issues, and rich culture -- to join the conversation."
However, Arianna also talked about missed opportunities. When announcing the October 2013 debut of Huffington Post Deutschland, she recalled a longtime desire to learn the German language that her mother spoke fluently while growing up in Athens. As the seasons of life have passed, one of Arianna's regrets is not realizing that desire: "When I turned 40, I made a list of all the things that I was realistically never going to be able to accomplish, and learning German -- as well as becoming a good skier -- was on the list. Today I'm very happy about my skiing decision, but I regret my German one. So, sadly, these days my German is pretty much limited to my overuse of "Zeitgeist.""
As Arianna's experiences have demonstrated, cross-cultural competence has never been more important with the growing global economy. In fact, a recent global survey conducted by the British Council found that managers worldwide prefer individuals with intercultural skills because those new recruits could navigate different cultural contexts and viewpoints, adapt to changing environments and work well in diverse groups.
When you get down to the basics, language skills and global competency develop as a result of exposure to other cultures, ideas, education, and circumstances. You do not need to grow up in Europe like Arianna or have the same experiences to develop global smarts. Students can study a second language in school, although we need to begin teaching languages in elementary school to develop truly proficient speakers of other languages. For those of us beyond our school years, exposure can occur anytime, anywhere and in a variety of different ways from reading a news article to following a Twitter stream to practicing a language to visiting a foreign country. The full immersion experiences, such as exchange partnerships, study abroad and travel, are most effective. However, technology now provides opportunities to develop language proficiency and cultural awareness in ways that are motivating, engaging and fun. For example, social networks now allow learners to make personal connections with like-minded people who want to learn or practice a language, share cultures, and explore common interests. Travelers can make connections and find friends before they go, resulting in a more authentic and memorable experience!
So what are the lessons we can learn from Arianna? Lesson One: Bilingual, culturally aware people have a distinct advantage in the global economy. Lesson Two: Language and cultural understanding are the pathways to bridging differences and gaining insight into people and culture. Lesson Three: Technology and innovation provide new ways to connect with the world. Lesson Four: It doesn't matter that you speak French with a Greek accent. Just start a conversation!