I once worked for a German publisher here in the States. My bosses spoke in German to each other around us every day. When they offered us German tutoring at the office, early in the mornings before work, I jumped at the chance. The tutor spoke nothing but German to us, so it was sink or swim: learn the language or slap the notebook shut and give up. I learned.
After a while, I began to understand what my bosses were saying around me. It was like a door opened. What before had been meaningless, incomprehensible talk was now a stream of marketing ideas, business strategy, and glimpses into their personalities.
The language lessons paid off when a group of us traveled to Augsburg, outside of Munich, for meetings. Excited for the opportunity to practice my German, I was surprised that more often than not the Germans I met were politely eager to speak English with me. More than one actually apologized for not speaking English better, but when I pointed out that I was in their country and should be speaking their language, most appreciated my feeble attempts at conversation in German.
That was 22 years ago. Business travel has surged since then, as has the number of people living in foreign countries. Thank goodness the number of ways to learn a new language has also grown.
For example, there are:
Traditional teacher-led classroom courses
Distance learning courses offered by universities
Combinations of computer-based programs with web connections to teachers
Web programs that pair language students and help them teach each other in a structured environment, like MyLanguageExchange
There are mobile language apps, free and paid programs, courses that concentrate on terms of business or technology, and other criteria you can meet to find a program and style most useful for you.
Keeping a phrasebook or translation app on hand can only get you so far. What happens when your neighbor or colleague answers your basic question by sharing more detail than you can understand? You miss the chance to make a connection; the conversation is stunted. Worst case, some critical information does not get through to you.
Even in countries where the native population can speak in your language, there is so much you can miss if you don’t speak the local language. And there is so much to be gained if you give it a try. Not only do locals appreciate your effort, you can do your job and live your life that much better.