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Frederic Leoni, a student at Grenoble Graduate School of Business in the French Alps, occupies his spare time topping up on his German language lessons. Grenoble’s MBA is taught in English, but the business school offers tuition in several European languages.

“I describe myself as a French Italian but I decided to learn German to give me more career options. I’d like to work for the United Nations in Switzerland or in Germany and if you can speak, you can work,” says Mr Leoni, 31.

Language teaching at GGSB is a mix of face-to-face teaching supported by online distance learning, which allows individuals to practise at their own pace. “I’m using an online language course called Tell Me More. I’ve loaded it on to my laptop,” says Mr Leoni.

Lessons on Tell Me More are graded by European Community language proficiency levels. Leoni is at level B1 which is higher than beginners graded at A1 or A2. “My aim is to get to level C,” he says.

Grenoble pays for a licence for Tell Me More, which is available to all students on the university’s virtual learning environment, Moodle.

The majority of non-French-speaking international students at Grenoble learn French face-to-face and online. Language study allows them to get the most out of life in the city, as well as helping them secure internships with French companies.

Students can also study Spanish, German or Chinese. “If you are here for a semester, you will be offered the chance to learn a language,” says Carole Gally, GGSB’s language co-ordinator.

Language tuition is a popular add-on for MBA programmes and is what gives European business schools such as Grenoble, IE or Iese a competitive edge against UK or North American schools. At Insead for example, fluency in a second language is a condition of entry and by the time you graduate, you will be speaking a third.

“We see language classes as a cultural tool – how you behave when you are meeting with a French manager,” says Ms Gally.

Distance learning MBAs are picking up on the huge market for business qualifications among non-native speakers of English. Over the past decade, Edinburgh Business School has begun translating its online MBA into the main world languages.

Starting with Mandarin Chinese in 2002, the EBS online MBA has been translated into Spanish, Arabic and Russian.

The adaptation is no mere matter of word for word translation. The entire business landscape has to be reflected as well as its technical language and cultural idioms.

Alick Kitchin, EBS business director, says: “It’s a tough call to get 600 pages of economics into Spanish or Russian. You need language experts, business experts and reviewers to make sure that it all makes sense.”

EBS delivers blended learning, a mix of online and face-to-face teaching delivered through partner institutions. Since it launched its language versions of the MBA, EBS has delivered online teaching to more than 800 Chinese, 500 Spanish and 400 Arabic students.

“This attitude that regards the MBA as essentially English is wrong,” says Mr Kitchin. And who can argue with that?

If business schools are to tap the vast markets for qualifications in China, India and the developing world, then languages must be a key part of the offer.

Foreign language-based social networking is putting business students in direct contact with teachers in the developing world, where tuition is often traded and where business people and professionals can learn a language through conversing online with someone with similar career interests.

In such cases both the teacher and the student learn each other’s language and culture through conversation.

In four years, the Seattle-based social networking site Livemocha has established 9m users and 300,000 teachers worldwide. Brazil, the Middle East and Asia are the biggest markets.

Michael Schutzler, chief executive of Livemocha, says: “There are 300m people in China learning English. They are already fluent in Mandarin. In China, language social networking is as addictive as computer gaming. It’s a completely different attitude to language learning from what we see in the west.”

Business schools are a target market for Live­mocha and the website has set up licences with a number of smaller US business schools. One of its biggest corporate clients is Google, which has hired Livemocha as a way of encouraging all staff to learn another language.

Business schools have spotted an opportunity for developing social enterprise. MBA students from Iese, a Spanish business school, are helping run a start-up languages website Glovico on a rotating internship and are marketing it in the US and Europe, using personal contacts and word of mouth.

Glovico fosters business links with developing countries and puts teachers from Latin America and Africa in touch with students wanting to improve their conversation skills.

The no-frills website is run with a small back office, a money transfer facility and a booking diary. Conversations in French, Spanish or English are delivered over Skype at little more than the cost of a phone call.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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