The Language of Business

A new language program at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School aims to help international students interested in a post-MBA career in the United States find””and keep””jobs. Despite the current high demand for MBA graduates, many international students still struggle to get a job offer — or even an interview. At Kenan-Flagler, for instance, only about 40% of the recruiters will meet with foreign nationals. The chief reasons for such resistance: the limited number of U.S. work visas and language deficiencies.

There’s not much business schools can do about the visa shortage, but the new Honing Executive English Language Skills (HEELS) program helps assess students’ English-language skills, provides objective feedback, and then offers specially designed courses to improve those skills. The MBA Career Management Center offers HEELS in partnership with linguists at The World Company. It requires all of its foreign MBA students — more than a quarter of the class — to take an oral and written test when they arrive on campus. The students are rated on a nine-point scale based on their accent, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and other factors. To boost their scores, students can pay a fee to take special classes taught by linguists that focus on speaking English in a business context.

The school’s press release says the interactive HEELS courses are taught in small groups and focus on accent modification, grammar and vocabulary issues, and modify non-verbal communication that might be misinterpreted by U.S. managers, coworkers or clients. In addition to the English classes, North Carolina offers courses for international MBA students on American culture — from sports and entertainment to the origin of slang expressions — and on U.S. business communication, including practice exercises for impromptu speeches, team presentations, boardroom pitches and employee performance reviews.

“HEELS helps students achieve a standard to which they can aspire to improve their skills if they want to work in a specific U.S. industry,” said David Hofmann, MBA Program Associate Dean. “They can learn from the recruiters’ valuable feedback, and will no longer have to guess whether their language capability could hinder their ability to secure the types of jobs they want in the United States.”

Other schools are also expanding programs to help foreign students prepare for careers in the United States. The University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business, where nearly half of the MBA class is international, offers an English-language and U.S.-culture program that includes language instruction and trips to museums, theaters and sports events.

At the University at Buffalo, there are English as a Second Language classes, as well as opportunities for foreign nationals to practice pitching themselves to recruiters at mock career fairs and in interview workshops. “The average recruiter is going to decide in 30 seconds whether a student has the communication skills to make it in his organization,” says Paul Allaire, an assistant dean at Buffalo. “We want to give our international students a fighting chance to compete.”

For more on this story, read the Wall Street Journal’s “How Foreign Students Learn to Talk the Talk“.

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