Words to the wise

When Tom Adams was 10 years old, his Swedish parents relocated from France to the UK, where he couldn’t speak a word of the language.

As a formative experience, it was undoubtedly daunting but it sparked a lifelong passion for language learning that led him to become CEO of a company dedicated to breaking down linguistic barriers.

Moving to England was a cultural shock but at the same time a powerful experience, not just because I became multilingual but also because it opened up my eyes to the importance of speaking different languages and being able to immerse yourself in another culture, he says.

Tom studied the IB Diploma Programme at St Clare’s, Oxford, one of the first colleges in the UK to adopt the IB. Only 4 per cent of students were British, a factor that contributed to making him feel at ease. It was incredibly rewarding, not just in terms of the school and the curriculum but also in terms of making friends with students from other cultures. My best friends in the world are still from St Clare’s.

One of them, Matt Schenck, was determined they would one day work together, and later introduced Tom to the founder of Rosetta Stone. Formed in 1992, the company was a family business with fewer than 100 employees. Under Tom’s management, it has grown into one of the world’s leading language-learning software companies, providing CD-ROMs in everything from French to Swahili for customers in more than 150 countries. The company’s turnover last year was US$258 million.

Tom, 39, who holds a bachelor of arts degree in history from Bristol University, and a masters in business administration from INSEAD, says that what he loves about his job is seeing the impact the company’s work has on people. Two weeks ago I visited a school in North Carolina [USA] where they previously didn’t have the budget to teach languages but now they have kids of all ages learning languages like Chinese, Arabic and Spanish. I spoke to a nine-year-old who was already bilingual because he was Hispanic, and now he’s learning Chinese. That’s inspiring.

His vision and drive haven’t gone unnoticed he has won numerous awards, including Ernst & Young’s Global Entrepreneur of the Year.

He credits the IB Diploma Programme with developing new skills. I learned so much in terms of understanding how the world works. It’s a fantastic curriculum that helps you become a better problem-solver.

Tom hopes his two children, aged one and three, will attend an IB World School when they are older. Like their father who speaks four languages fluently and is basic in a few others they are already multilingual. Apart from their native English, Tom speaks to them in Swedish and French. He thinks independent schools place more importance on teaching languages, but that in English-speaking countries the idea that there is not much need to learn other languages because the rest of the world speaks English still prevails. There are enormous gains to be had by learning another language, he says. You engage more easily in another culture, and you engage more deeply in your own culture too. You become open to different ideas and other ways of thinking. It seems incredible given what is happening in the world today that more effort is not made to teach the new generation another language like Chinese, Arabic or Hindi, for example.