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Does your Company Have a Language Strategy? It Needs One!

Declan Mulkeen

18 Dec 2016

One of the most significant decisions any international company must consider is how they wish their employees to communicate with each other. Developing a corporate language strategy is key to breaking down communication barriers and building a truly global and collaborative organisation.

Does Your Company Have a Language Strategy?

Today’s multinational businesses face a multitude of challenges as they seek to grow internationally, integrate acquisitions and develop their workforces. One such challenge, according to the Harvard Business Review, is which language do they operate in and how do they ensure their staff are prepared to operate in this language.

It is worrying to note that many international companies appear not to have a language strategy at all

Language Strategy

It is worrying to note that many international companies appear not to have a language strategy at all. In these organisations, uncontrolled multilingualism tends to lead to a chaotic and inefficient work environment. So what do most organisations do to prevent this from happening?

Choice of Lingua Franca

International companies must define a lingua franca or common language that is used amongst its employees.  This gives the organisation the ability to communicate across all of its office locations.

However, it is also important to recognise that local offices must be staffed by people who have the ability to speak the local language.  They must also have an awareness of the local culture’s values, norms and behaviours.

Are We Positively Discriminating Language Over Other Competencies?

A common mistake many multinational organisations make is how they assess the value of an employee’s proficiency in a language.  While important, language skills may be clouding the judgement of managers, who may be subliminally overvaluing language skills over leadership skills or team cohesiveness.

Some of the more effective international companies recognise this potential pitfall.  These organisations may identify prospective employees or future leaders by their other skills, even if their language skills are limited.  In this scenario, they prioritise leadership skills and provide additional training and tools to subsequently improve their language skills.

Thus, many of the most successful international companies prefer to retain entry-level hires with strong potential leadership skills even if there is a need to improve their language skills, rather than to rely on an employee who simply has good language skills but may not measure up beyond language.

International companies must define a lingua franca or common language that is used amongst its employees

What About Other Languages?

Harvard Business Review cites the language strategy of IBM, which identified eight important languages in addition to English

Although there are many people who embrace language learning, it is also fair to note that at least as many people find language learning to be a daunting prospect, especially if they are monolingual adults.  However, organisations that are serious about the success of a truly international company place a high value on language learning for its high potential employees, especially if they are candidates for an international assignment.

Case Study: IBM

Harvard Business Review cites the language strategy of IBM, which identified eight important languages in addition to English.  Placing a high value on gaining an international assignment comes with an expectation that another language will be learnt if the assignee is destined for one of these countries.

Organisations that are serious will support their language learning employees by making the training valuable and as accessible as any other skills training programme.  Thus, language lessons are paid for by the organisation and are held during working hours, often in the employees’ offices.

Whilst important, language skills may be clouding the judgement of managers, who may be subliminally overvaluing language skills over leadership skills or team cohesiveness.

Knowing the Culture

Finally, successful international companies recognise the importance that culture plays. Although proficiency in a foreign language allows the employee to communicate verbally in another culture, cultural awareness will provide the employee with the ability to find the best style to communicate effectively within the local culture, both verbally and non-verbally.

Successful international companies recognise the importance that culture plays

Choosing how directly to speak, what eye contact level is appropriate and how to read between the lines to pick up nuances such as what was intentionally left unsaid are all important examples cultural skills to learn.

Employees who have developed a way to adapt to local cultures by adapting their leadership styles reduce the number of misunderstandings and disagreements, and give people a platform to discuss these differences safely when they do arise.