How to encourage staff to learn a foreign language

English may be the global language, but mastering a foreign tongue can benefit business and employees. But how should staff be encouraged to do this?

Foreign language skills are, increasingly, a must-have on CVs. As more organisations operate globally, being able to communicate with clients and colleagues in different countries is important.

Recruiting staff with these skills may be half the battle, but what about upskilling the current workforce? It may sound like a long and expensive process, but arranging language training could pay dividends.

Kate Mason, institutional sales manager, Europe, at e-learning training specialist Rosetta Stone, says immediate benefits can be reaped.”These include improved retention, increased customer satisfaction, and enhanced employee communications, to name a few.”

Before introducing training, you first need to get staff interested. Unless there is a business need for themm to learn aspecific language, Mason says that choice can be key to motivation. “Certain languages may not seem immediately relevant, but they may be in the future. If employees can learn languages that are most interesting or relevant to them, they have a higher chance of success.”

Cultivating culture

You then need to embed a language learning culture into the company.Declan Mulkeen, marketing director of communications skills consultancy Communicaid, says that this can be done by running workshops and events, or bringing together staff of different nationalities to act as mentors. “It’s also a good idea to set up a ‘language laboratory’, where employees can access materials and practice,” he says.

The level of training will depend on current abilities and the language needs of specific job roles. Maria de la Torre, managing director at Accent Consultants, says she provides all levels of training – from the basics of a language and polite chit-chat to higher-level programmes, where business language and terminology can be learned.

“One of our clients is a pharmaceutical company, and although staff are able to speak the required language, they need to understand complex terminology to get on in their jobs,” she says.

Sometimes intensive training is also needed so that staff learn a language in a short space of time.”A company we recently worked with needed to train four employees who were being seconded abroad within six weeks, so we provided six hours’ training a day until they left,” says de la Torre.

The other extreme is where employers provide language training as a perk. De la Torre says this is becoming an increasingly popular employee benefit.”In this case, lessons are usually provided in employees’ lunch hours or before the working day starts. It’s amazing how many people really appreciate being able to learn a new language,” she says.

De la Torre believes that self-study should only be used for very basic learning, and that classroom learning, preferably taught by a native speaker, is the best way to learn.”Self-study simply doesn’t work at a high level unless you have exceptional linguistic skills,” she says. “You need classroom learning with a maximum of eight students for the best results.”

Communicaid’s Mulkeen agrees that face-to-face learning is the most effective method. “However, e-learning and self-study are also important and can reinforce what is learnedin the classroom,” he says.

Different strokes

Like all learning, different methods work better for different people. But if staff do not have the time to attend classes, Mason says e-learning can be a viable option – especially for beginners. “They can establish base knowledge and build confidence in privacy. As skills develop, learners can then expand their use of language in a classroom or in practice,” she says.

The cost of offering a language training programme varies depending on the teaching method selected. If there is a large group of learners, e-learning and self-study will generally be cheaper options per head than classroom teaching.

However, to fully master a language, Mulkeen recommends at least three hours a week face-to-face training.”Typically, you can double this with home study and coursework,” he adds.

As for the cost of classroom training, Communicaid charges between £40 and £80 per hour, depending on whether it is one-to-one or group-based. Accent Consultants charges £35 an hour for classes of up to eight.

With the right approach and budget, there are solutions out there to help staff master a new language from scratch or improve their fluency. For employers, being able to boast a multi-lingual workforce could be just the incentive needed to invest.

Case study: Lloyd’s Register

For the past four years, independent risk management organisation Lloyd’s Register has worked with Farnham Castle International Briefing and Conference Centre to provide its expatriate staff and their families with intensive language tuition as part of a programme to help them acclimatise more easily in new locations around the world.

The language training programmes comprise a residential, intensive one-week programme at Farnham Castle, Surrey.

Tailored programmes cover any language at any level, from beginners through to specialist skills training, including preparation for meetings, presentations, or for improving business skills, and cost from £1,950 to £2,500 a head. One-to-one or two-to-one training is also provided.

Each day comprises six hours of language training, and private study is set each evening. Classroom-based programmes are designed to be as interactive as possible, allowing attendees to put acquired knowledge into practice straight away.

An HR spokesperson at Lloyd’s Register says: “Our training helps staff integrate more quickly into the new culture. Language training is highly valued by staff as it makes the relocation process much easier. In turn, we believe this has a direct impact on the success of foreign assignments for Lloyd’s Register.”

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