We all know that learning about other cultures is fun and helps us be more tolerant and empathetic people.   The oil & gas industry is an international one, bringing together people from many different countries and cultures, so it stands to reason that learning another language should have a positive impact on your career in this business.  This week, a reader wanted some insight into just that topic!

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I’ve noticed that your LinkedIn profile and resume highlight the fact that you’re bilingual.  I am curious about the advantage of developing proficiency in the Spanish language in the oil & gas industry.  Have there been instances where you’ve experienced that it gave you an edge over others? Also, is this specifically for Spanish, since Mexico and Latin American nations are rich hubs for this industry? It would be really helpful if you could share your experience.

Thanks again for your insightful posts. Can’t wait for the next one!

We are certainly working through some issues here now in the US, but having been to and lived in several other countries, I can say for sure that I wouldn’t trade living here for anything:  the people are friendly, the bureaucracy DOES work fairly well, I get to watch football (yep, the American kind) on Sundays, and the opportunities are there to do very well if you apply yourself and work really hard.

Most people at this point can’t tell I’m not from here and yet, c’est vrai, I am not American.  I first moved to Houston when I was six, but being born to an English mother and French father means that I’m still here by way of a Green Card, and that I do speak French.

Your question is asking specifically about the benefits of learning Spanish, but I think before getting to that it’ll be helpful to look at what I think are the advantages of knowing/learning any language, and how that can help you in your career in oil & gas.

It’s been documented that people do benefit from speaking several languages starting at an early age.  I’m no doctor, but this makes sense:  early on, you’re a blank slate, and the more “knowledge infrastructure” you can establish, the more prepared you’ll be to build on that later with more knowledge; something complex like language should definitely set you up for further learning in other areas.

Even if you’re well into adulthood, I can still see the benefits:  since your brain, like most of your body, works on the “use it or lose it” principle, the more you push yourself intellectually, the better chance you have of keeping away some of the awful brain diseases that come with aging.

But back to the issue of careers in oil & gas, what are the tangible benefits?

Well, in my case, the reason I emphasize my own bilingualism is because it acts as a type of “signaling” mechanism.  Going back to my point at the top, I count in some way on the fact that people think “oh, he speaks more than one language, so perhaps he is more well rounded, accomplished and capable than someone who speaks just one”.

If you take it upon yourself to learn another language as an adult, that also acts as a signaling mechanism:  you’re enthusiastic about participating in and learning about other cultures, and you’re dedicated and passionate enough to do something that is actually quite difficult to do.

That could apply to speaking any language though, right?  The fact that I speak French isn’t so important unless I have plans to work in France or certain parts of Africa, and though that’s always a possibility, my career hasn’t yet taken me in that direction.  When I graduated from university, I thought speaking French was going to be a major “selling point” for me, but in fact, I can’t directly attribute any of the progress I’ve made in my career to speaking another language (unless you say that learning that second language from birth increased my capacity to do thoughtful work, in which case I have to attribute everything since birth to that second language…).

It’s interesting that you ask about learning Spanish, though, because that DID come in very handy a few years ago.  I had just started with my last employer, and about a month into the job I was sent down to Mexico with a senior supervisor to do a workover job.  Well, long story short, the tool became stuck, and the supervisor was committed to another rig in his home country.  That left me alone, supervising the fishing job by myself until more help came from my home office!

No one in the field at that point spoke fluent English, but thankfully, I had taken Spanish for years in school, and French WAS helpful in that case because the two languages are quite similar.  I can’t say that I myself spoke 100% fluently to the service crew on that occasion, but I certainly knew enough not to make things worse…

My story shows that the closer you get to the field, the less likely it is that people will speak English.  I’ve worked on rigs in a few countries, and communicating without the aid of an interpreter was tough.  So, if you plan on doing a lot of field work where one language is spoken predominantly, speaking that language is a huge plus.  Also, if you look at a few data points, your career progression at the higher levels in certain companies does seem to correlate to how much you share with the company’s cultural heritage.

Consider this:  the CEO of Shell is Dutch, the CEO of TOTAL is French, the CEO of Statoil is Norwegian, the CEO of ExxonMobil is American, the CEO of Petrobras is Brazilian…

It makes sense:  when companies choose CEOs, the executive committee picks the people they think can best propagate and carry-on the organization’s values and traditions.  If the company started out originally very closely associated to one nationality and language, it follows that the company leadership will continue to reflect that (even while the employee base is composed of a very diverse mix of people).   While you can’t change your heritage, I imagine that taking the time to learn the language most associated with the place/organization you’d like to make a career will definitely help your progression if you work for one these companies.

Is that an endorsement for you to learn Spanish?  Well, if that’s what you want to learn because you love how the language sounds, absolutely, go for it.  Now, whether or not Spanish is THE language to learn, I can’t say.  Your choice of Spanish seems to rest on the idea that a Spanish speaking country will play a more important role in production-related activities than others going forward.  No doubt, many will in fact continue to be very relevant in the context of oil & gas (Venezuela and Mexico, for instance).  If you think of Latin America though, Brazil is crucially important, and Brazilians of course speak Portuguese.

Actually, there are MANY other regions in the world that are important to oil & gas related activities.  What about Russia?  That’s also a very large player on the global scale.  China, too, looks set to continue growing its influence not only in oil & gas, but also global trade generally.  Learning any of the associated languages would be equally beneficial from a career standpoint, provided you see yourself spending a lot of time in those countries.  If not, you will end up in my position:  you have something cool to tell people at parties, but it doesn’t really help you much in your day-to-day work.

What I’m saying is that I can’t say “yes, you should learn Spanish” (or any other language) based purely on forecasts of where you see the industry going.  It’s up to you to think about what you’d like to do, where you’d like to go, and frankly, how much fun you’d have learning one language over another.  Let’s face it:  learning a language is a lot of work, so you’ll have a much easier time doing so if you are passionate about it, rather than just “checking a box” hoping that it may someday help your career.

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