Minding your employees’ language

The importance of learning foreign languages was reflected in the recent change to the UK’s national curriculum, which makes learning a language compulsory from the age of seven.

But what do employers do while they wait for these future “global natives” to enter the workforce?

The UK is rapidly losing pace in the global market due to its lack of foreign-language abilities and intercultural skills, so there has never been a more urgent need or justifiable reason to promote language learning in your organisation. Here are a few facts to consider.

  • Companies that use language and cultural skills achieve, on average, 45% more sales (British Chamber of Commerce).
  • In 1996, 75% of the web was in English. Today, this has reversed to 75% in other languages, according to Global Vibration Inc. Since 2000, internet traffic in Mandarin has increased from 5% to 20%.
  • In e-commerce, customers prefer to buy from websites in their native language even if the price is higher (Common Sense Advisory).
  • Trade figures highlight that our balance of trade is skewed towards countries that speak English (USA and Ireland). We have an imbalance of trade with the rest of our top 10 trading partners.
  • Rebalancing the UK’s trade with non-English speaking countries could add £21 billion per year to UK GDP (Costing Babel, Cardiff Business School).

Regrettably, English speakers overestimate the importance of English and underestimate the value of other languages due to our assumption that English is the lingua franca for travel and business. But only 6% of the world’s population speak English as a first language, and 75% of the world’s population speak no English at all. To deal with this gap in communication, UK companies have traditionally preferred to recruit rather than train in language skills.

Therefore, employers need to show the importance of foreign language skills by supporting programs that allow their employees to learn languages at work.

What are the benefits?

Apart from the potential business benefit, promoting language learning within your company can have a positive influence on morale. It shows your investment in employees’ career development, and it will certainly draw in potential employees as a key incentive. But it is also a great forum for team-building across the company. It pushes people to develop in different areas that go beyond their day to day work.

By learning a foreign language, you become more aware of the rules of your own. So even if your employees don’t achieve fluency in a new language, they will certainly improve on their English skills.

Learning another language encourages empathy. If employees can’t respond in someone’s mother tongue, they will at least show a sense of empathy and patience with non-native English speakers after having gone through the same difficult learning process.

You show respect for others’ cultures. We all know that saying “thank you” and “please” go a long way, but saying “arigatō” to a Japanese peer or “ludzu” to a Latvian colleague would go even further. This is especially true when doing business with Asian countries, where it is not usually expected that other people might learn their language.

Learning a new language helps with intercultural awareness. It’s not only about working with businesses in foreign countries, but also about being able to work with people successfully within your own company, be it an international company, or a UK-based company that reflects the make-up of our multicultural cities. Have you ever heard comments about non-native English-speaking employees being “abrupt”, “rude” or “bossy” at work? Often it’s because they are translating from their own language. A classic case is German, where they don’t use question words, so what they say might sound more abrupt (“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” or “Speak you German?”). Also, as English speakers we tend to use a lot of hedging when we speak, “would you mind if perhaps maybe?”. This is not something easily learned, so foreign speakers might come off a bit more assertive. If we understand these linguistic differences, we start to eliminate misunderstandings and miscommunications.

What languages should you promote?

This depends largely on where you do business. But if you are looking to expand in general, then focus on the faster-growing economies and offer Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese. Also, 15% of employers are looking for people familiar with the Arabic languages and culture. And while French and German are always useful, Spanish is becoming increasingly popular, especially in firms trading with Spain and Latin America.

How to integrate language learning in the workplace

Offering to pay for classes can be cost prohibitive, and often employees can’t commit to study after work hours. The key is to integrate it easily into their lives and into the working day. Here are a few ideas.

  • Offer employees an audio-only course so they can listen to it on their commute.
  • Create language learning clubs. Employees can get together once a week on their lunch hour to practice their chosen language. There are great self-study books available that can serve as a syllabus to guide people in their learning.
  • Reimburse employees for language app purchases.

The goal is to make language learning as enjoyable as possible so that employees continue their studies outside of work hours. Assigning goals and following up with their learning will be an important factor to the success of any program. And offering an incentive, be it a certificate or financial award, might provide the competitive edge that both your employees and your company needs.

Sarah Cole is editorial director, consumer education, languages, at Hodder Education

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