Mind your language

As English is the Esperanto of the business world, it is easy to overlook the benefits of having a multi-lingual workforce. But client-facing staff who find themselves conversing with overseas customers are far more likely to win business and influence people if they can speak the native language.

Lipper, a London-based Reuters company specialising in mutual fund management, information and analysis, knew that to provide the necessary front-line support for its European clients, it needed multi-lingual employees, and was certain of the route the organisation should take.

“I have always believed that it is more important to have people with client and front-end skills and go down the training route for language,” says Derek Godfrey, European sales support manager of Lipper.

“There is no point recruiting someone with language skills if they have no idea how to talk to a client,” he adds.

This is fine in theory, but hectic work schedules seldom allow for quality language training. Lipper’s solution, however, lay close to home – at the London Metropolitan University, whose European and Languages Services (ELS) division has provided commercial language training since the early 1990s for organisations such as the Football Association, Royal Sun & Alliance and The Met Office. One of the university’s early commercial projects was to develop a tailored language programme to teach French to UK Eurostar drivers.

More recently in 2003, ELS, which is one of London Met’s income generation strands, developed its Blended Language Learning programme. This combines tutor sessions with an ‘e-pack’ – an online self-study component which allows students to practice and test themselves in their own time and at their own pace. The programme’s roots lay in the university’s Open Language Programme, which gave all students the option to take a language module as part of their degree courses.

“The concept of open learning was popular, but the lack of flexibility was becoming an issue,” says Sue Hyde, business development manager of ELS.

“With an increasing awareness of the advantages of e-learning, many of our learners did not want to be tied to completing the Study Packs in the Language Centre – they expected the flexibility of language learning via the internet.”

Commercial users buy a licence agreement to use the e-packs based on the number of users (you can buy one e-pack for 249 or four for 399). Current clients also include publishers Palgrave Macmillan, which endorses the e-pack as an accompanying support for its Foundations series. ELS has also started a collaboration with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Language Centre to produce an e-pack tailored to accompany its existing taught courses.

Lipper’s need for the training stemmed from its growing base of clients across Europe. It bought three blocks of training and students are now at the end of the first block.

Target learner

Lipper is currently training three sales support executives from its front-line support department for the UK and Europe.
Two British female employees are learning German and Spanish, while a Spanish female employee is learning French. Each had no more than a basic understanding of the respective language.

Course details

The course comprises 60 hours of learning, which includes 24 hours of face-to-face sessions with a tutor. This is undertaken in two-hour chunks every week for 12 weeks. There are 12 units in each level and ELS recommends three hours of self-study per week.

Printed material is given to the students, but the other key component of the blended programme is the London Met e-pack. Created using the multimedia authoring software Macromedia Flash, it features animation, graphics, audio and text, and comprises 12 online sessions that complement the face-to-face tutoring.

Each e-pack contains more than 100 interactive activities, which include listening exercises, grammar, vocabulary and writing practice, and learner support.

“We wanted to combine the best of both worlds by keeping the guidance and motivation of the teacher, blending this with the fun, flexibility and endless possibilities of e-learning,” says Ccile Tschirhart, e-learning manager of the London Met and one of the masterminds behind its move from paper-based self-study material to an online component.

Main challenges

ELS carried out a needs analysis of staff which began by shadowing each of the individuals at work.

“I was impressed by their willingness to understand the business,” says Godfrey. “They sat at the desk, listened to phone calls and really understood what we did. It means the classroom training is very tailored.”

As well as being relevant to the business needs, the training had to fit in with the business day, especially given that the sales support staff are dealing with different time zones.

To minimise disruption, the ELS language tutors visit the Lipper offices during an early morning slot, from 8am to 10am.

The e-packs are designed to address many of the general challenges organisations face when training employees in a new language. Crucially, given the learner’s typically hectic schedule, it provides them with a method of catching up on missed lessons.

“In our experience, busy commercial clients following in-company language courses find it difficult to commit to regular homework or self-study,” says Hyde. “However, we found that by presenting the course at the outset as a blended learning programme with an expert linguistic rationale for the importance of self-study, we have witnessed a much more regular attendance rate than normal.

“We are seeing that, by working on the e-pack in their own time, they then want to re-connect with the teacher and try harder not to miss the weekly two-hour lesson.”

Look and feeling

The e-packs, which were a finalist in WOLCE’s blended solution category, had to be fun but pedagogically sound, and ELS is keen to stress that, while they could be used for top-up language learning, they are designed to be used as part of a blended solution. “We do not believe languages can be learned via a screen alone,” says Hyde.

It has taken a lively and colourful approach to the design, and uses facilities like drag-and-drop to ensure the programme is interactive but user-friendly.

“We did not want learners wasting time trying to understand what they had to do,” says Hyde. “The tasks are challenging but the instruction is simple. When we test their vocal skills on food, for instance, what they listen to is quite complex but we tell them to listen for specific things and this builds confidence in their listening skills. If the task is too easy, it lulls them into a false sense of security.”

ELS will be adding cultural material to the e-packs and including video clips. New levels and more languages are currently in the design and production stage.

Success rates

The Lipper students are now a third of the way through their training and in April they will be tested internally. Godfrey does not expect them to be fluent by May, but believes they will have enough knowledge to support the front-line desk.

Following this, they will study for a professional business language qualification and visit relevant European countries with account managers.

“This kind of language training will become more important to us,” he says. “It is a route we had to go, and we were determined to do it properly. However good the training is, though, it is vital you pick the right people and that they have a willingness and an energy to learn the language –
otherwise, it won’t work.”

Top tips

Derek Godfrey’s top tips for language training:

  • Make sure your students are enthusiastic about learning the language. They should have an ‘energy’ for it
  • Try to complement what you do externally with some internal activity
  • Make sure your language training provider is in tune with your business needs, and that it is a two-way relationship. Give them plenty of input and feedback.

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