As a Global Leader, Why is Learning Languages and Dialects Important?
Welcome to our weekly edition of Top Coach Blog to get you from where you are to where you want to be.
Have you ever wondered how important is it to speak languages for your business career?
What difference does speaking several languages have in Europe?
Our guest: A global leader
Our guest this week, is Philippe Dehennin is CEO of BMW, Switzerland since February 2012. Mr. Dehennin started his career at BMW as responsible for sales for both Belgium and Luxembourg in 1987. He was then elected as president and CEO BMW Belgium and Luxembourg before taking over as President and CEO of BMW France in 2009.
As a global leader, how did you learn to speak languages and dialects?
How easy is it to learn a dialect?
When I was in Belgium at the turn of the century, BMW took over the business of the importer in Luxembourg. I very quickly found out that if you want to be successful in Luxembourg, you needed to understand Luxembourgish and preferably speak it as well. I undertook to learn Luxembourgish and having learned to understand Luxembourgish, I embarked on learning to understand Swiss German.
Education is the mother of leadership by Wendell Willkie
Like Luxembourgish, Swiss German is seen as a language and not as a dialect. There are similarities between the two perceptions. If you travel from Luxembourg across Germany to the Swiss border, the language evolves in a way that what is spoken here in Switzerland has some resemblance to what is spoken there. It sounds similar enough that although I’m not a native German speaker, after three, four, five weeks, I could understand 90% Swiss German.
How many languages do you speak?
I speak a few. My mother tongue is French. My parents from Belgium were very firm on the fact that when you’re Belgian, you’re supposed to speak both national languages (French and Dutch). I was strongly encouraged, when I was a kid, to learn Dutch. So I’m bilingual French-Dutch. And English is the world’s most spoken language, and I learned the basics at school.
I was very fortunate to be offered to study in the United States by my father who said, “The US’s has a forward way of thinking in the way they face challenges. This attitude should be useful for challenges to come. So rather than studying in old Europe, my parents encouraged me to leave for the US. So that’s where I became fluent in English.
And other than that, I speak some Spanish. I do speak some Japanese but only conversational Japanese, and it was learned more out of personal interest than out of a professional need. And yes, this dialect phenomenon in Europe is very widespread, and it’s interesting to see that it applies to Switzerland and Belgium. If you travel 30 kilometers, the dialect that is spoken is different. If you take two people living in the same country, but 250 kilometers apart, they would probably not understand each other’s dialect.
How important is it in Europe to learn languages?
And this is very specific to Europe. Unless you understand the challenges of this cultural diversity, you’re less likely to be successful in anything you undertake.
Special thanks to Philippe Dehennin, CEO of BMW Switzerland who was interviewed by Dr. Katrina Burrus, MCC. She coaches Global Nomadic Leaders to better understand the challenges of cultural diversity. The entire interview with Mr. Philippe Dehennin can be listened to at Excellent Executive Coaching podcast or on iTunes at here.