If you want to do business or invest money in a foreign country, you have to speak the language

door Regina Coeli

European Commissioner, Frans Timmermans, speaks a number of languages and this has been a great advantage to him throughout his career. He encourages businesses to invest in learning languages because it has a beneficial effect on Dutch exports. We spoke to him about his own experiences and about his interpretation of how languages play a role in doing business internationally.

You speak several languages yourself. What is your fascination with languages?
“Language is so much more than a means of communication. Learning a foreign language is also discovering a new culture. Literally, it opens up a whole new world. It helps you to appreciate a country, to understand its people and, furthermore, helps them to understand you better. And, strange as it may seem, being able to relate to another language and culture actually helps you to understand what your own language and culture have to offer. Coming into contact with the unfamiliar is the best way of discovering yourself.”

What role has the ability of being able to speak other languages played in your career?
You could say that speaking other languages is the common denominator in my life. As a child I had to learn languages in order to keep up. First I went to a French school, then to a Flemish one and later on to an English school where a lot of Italian was also spoken! Only after that did I attend a Dutch school for a number of years. I studied French literature at Nijmegen University and then later, in Nancy, literature and European law. I learned Russian during military service and Spanish in the Foreign Office class. Professionally speaking, I have enjoyed my language skills in the various positions I’ve held over the last twenty-five years as diplomat, Member of Parliament, Secretary of State and, currently, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

But the greatest pleasure of all is being able to feel part of other cultures; to enjoy, unhindered, literature and films in other languages, and to build bridges between friends and acquaintances. In my present role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, not a day goes by that I do not appreciate my language skills. It helps enormously if you are able to get your message across without having to use interpreters. People really applaud the fact that you speak their language. They see it as an expression of interest and also respect. In addition, there are likely to be fewer misunderstandings. However, it’s important to realise that this only works if you speak the language well. If you don’t, for heaven’s sake, get yourself an interpreter because otherwise someone is bound to get the wrong end of the stick!

Have you ever experienced situations in which speaking the country’s language was of utmost importance?
“There have been many! Certainly during the years in Russia and also later during my frequent travels in Europe with Max van der Stoel, in our attempts to nip brewing conflicts in the bud, I realised that it was easier to win confidence and thus to be told the true nature of the problem if I listened and spoke to grieving parties in their own language.”

You are a keen advocate of the German language, amongst others. Why do you think it’s so important that the Dutch speak other languages?
“The Netherlands is an open country. A large portion of our prosperity comes from our dealings abroad. Learning other languages broadens your development which in turn increases your chances of finding a job, either in the Netherlands or abroad. The world is changing rapidly. In the past few years, we have seen countries such as China and Brazil gaining in importance. You could see that as a threat. But, if you were able to speak Chinese or Portuguese well, you would be in a better position to react to the opportunities that present themselves as a result of this development. I also believe that by learning other languages you become more aware of your own identity and are better able to appreciate it.”

How can the language factor help businesses to become more successful internationally?
“If you want to do business or invest money in a foreign country, you have to speak the language. This is exactly what I told Dutch entrepreneurs when we visited Liège earlier this year. The trademark of the Dutch entrepreneur is the ability to adapt as far as clients are concerned. If, in addition, you speak the client’s language, you have an extra advantage. The very fact that you have invested in your language skills shows that you’re looking for a stable, long-term relationship and not just a ‘one-night stand’.”


Interested in following language training at Regina Coeli?

The Regina Coeli method ensures that you learn to speak a foreign language quickly and effectively. Our highly qualified trainers teach you the skills, vocabulary and grammar that you need for your specific situation so you can immediately start communicating in the language.

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