Are English-speaking companies doing enough foreign language training?

Armin Hopp, founder and president of Speexx

With English as the dominant world business language, it is easy for English-speaking companies to assume that they do not need to learn another language. But having bilingual staff can have huge benefits for a business, reports online language training company Speexx’s founder Armin Hopp.

If a manufacturing company from the UK was to meet a supplier from China and a partner from Germany, the common language would most probably be English – the German and Chinese staff are sure to have learned English in school and probably speak it regularly in their working lives. By contrast, the chances of the UK company’s employees speaking German or Chinese are much lower.

There is no sign of this situation changing. In 2013, the number of students taking up a foreign language at UK universities was said to have dropped sharply. The Guardian reported that over the past 15 years, one-third of universities have given up offering specialist modern European language degrees. The number of universities offering degrees in the worst affected subject, German, has halved in that time.

Once these generations enter the business world, there will be even less time and encouragement to study a foreign language and the UK workforce may continue to rely on their foreign peers to be able to communicate in English.

Language barrier

English-speaking businesses in the UK and the US that do not have employees able to communicate in foreign languages are missing a huge opportunity. For example, there are 420 million native speakers of Spanish in the world. Spanish is the official language in 20 countries and it has become an increasingly important language for US businesses because of their proximity to Latin America.

Furthermore, there are 220 million native speakers of Portuguese, which is spoken in Brazil – an important emerging market and the world’s seventh largest economy. With an annual GDP growth rate of 5%, Brazil represents lots of potential business for enterprises that can speak Portuguese.

Better communications deliver workforce performance

Good communication skills are more than just about grammar and vocabulary. Sector-specific business communication skills are just as vital and communication also encompasses cultural considerations, such as how to greet one another, when and how to exchange business cards, how to show gratitude, and gestures or comments to avoid.

The Speexx Exchange Survey – a global study that looked at the attitudes of more than 250 global HR directors, learning and development professionals and C-level executives – found that the main benefits of a strong communications strategy were better collaboration across borders (43%) and improved competitive advantage in global projects (39%). A similar number (38%) noted a corresponding increase in the quality of customer care that resulted from an agile workforce able to respond to customers across borders and in different languages.

One-third of respondents also reported a reduction in internal conflict arising as a result of improved communication. Difficulties caused by the language barrier and cultural variations in communication can lead to frustration, mistakes and delays, hampering the agility of a mobile, global workforce.

Almost a quarter (23%) of organisations also reported that they had achieved cost savings through improved communications and language skills. Significant cost savings might arise from identifying and using appropriate internal resources for cross-border projects, rather than hiring expensive contractors simply because of language issues. Organisations can also make substantial savings on the costs of recruitment and training and development, as enhanced communication skills enable global employee mobility.

Benefits that may be less easy to quantify arise from enabling employees with language skills. Employee retention is likely to see improvement if staff are offered the opportunity of global deployment, overseas travel or postings and the chance to grow and apply their skills within a larger enterprise pool. Research suggests that the recruitment cost of replacing employees can be as high as 60% of a worker’s annual salary, with total costs associated with the impact on company turnover adding up to 200% of salary.

Bridging the gap

Organisations are realising that there is a quantifiable return on investment in online language training solutions – especially those that do not just focus on grammar and vocabulary, but instead help teach real business communication skills.

It is a good idea to bring blended language training into the real world and give employees the chance to practise speaking with a native speaker about a specific work-related topic in a virtual classroom or telephone session.

Consider rewarding employees who undertake online language learning by giving them the chance to collaborate with international colleagues, customers or partners – either face-to-face during business travel or through a virtual conference.

Speaking more than one language opens up a whole new stream of potential clients for the business. It makes prospective clients and partners feel more comfortable and at ease, which is a good starting point for doing business. It will also go down well with existing customers from overseas if you make the effort to speak in their language, demonstrating respect, interest and cultural awareness that will stand you in good stead to develop the business relationship.

Armin Hopp

About Armin Hopp

Armin Hopp is founder and president of the online language training company Speexx.
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