Why English when other languages have more native speakers? In fact, according to Babel Magazine (https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/the-10-most-spoken-languages-in-the-world), English comes in third place with roughly 300 million native speakers. This puts English a little behind Spanish which has 400 million native speakers, and the whopping 1.2 billion native speakers of Chinese. Yet there are 1.75 billion people who can speak English at a useful level, by far the largest population for any one language in the world.
With this in mind, it is understandable that companies would look to English for a common means of communication across their organization on a global level. While in itself may seem on the surface to be a straightforward decision, few companies are fully effective in implementing a language strategy that yields the desired impact and ultimately business outcomes. This is not surprising considering that learning a new language is one of the toughest, most radical things that a company can ask their employees.
Having supported companies large and small struggling with this issue to find effective solutions for more than 20 years, I have discovered that there are three critical success factors which are usually overlooked by the sponsoring department. They include having managers foster the right environment, giving native speaker colleagues an active role in enabling communication, and aligning a formal learning program seamlessly with expected business outcomes.
The Manager’s Role
Managers hold a substantial influence over what their subordinates prioritize and focus on while on the job. Employee perceptions of how their actions will impact compensation and promotion decisions naturally have a direct correlation with how they approach their work. Employees may perceive that at the end of the day, their manager’s sole priority is short-term business results. Indeed this may in fact be true, considering the pressures that managers themselves are under at every level of the organization.
Professional development of course does not stop at improving English language communication skills. With the increasing rate of disruptive change in the business world, employees need to work harder to maintain their capabilities in order to be fully prepared to confront the difficult and the different. This covers a broadening range of competencies, spanning specialist and technical knowledge, analytical and thinking skills, and people orientation skills. Yet without having a foundation in English, employees are likely to be locked out of the development opportunities which are provided by globalizing companies. This especially is why managers need to help their team navigate the balancing action between achieving short-term goals and pursing a professional development path that appropriately prioritizes English skills.
Undoubtedly, many managers may consider helping their employees improve their English is beyond the scope of their responsibility. Yet there is a set of necessary actions which managers are uniquely positioned to implement. They include:
- Have a thoughtful discussion about the employee’s development plan, in order to reach a clear shared understanding of his/her development goals and a concrete path to reach them.
- Build into the employee’s work responsibilities specific tasks or projects where English is necessary.
- Enable the employee to set a consistent study schedule.
- Stay actively involved in monitoring progress and holding the employee accountable for learning outcomes.
- Provide learning resources and reward success.
Sponsoring departments, usually the Human Resources function, need to help managers fully appreciate why these steps are necessary and how to effectively implement them.
Native Speaker Colleagues
At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to achieve a business result. This is dependent upon good communication among all parties involved. Native English speaking colleagues therefore have an equal stake in ensuring the effectiveness of the communication, and therefore share half of the responsibility.
The native English speaking team members commonly are not aware that there are simple tactics they can employ to immediately improve the quality of communication with their international colleagues. Furthermore, they may harbor a bias that their foreign counterparts bear the brunt of the burden to realize mutual understanding.
This is rarely recognized by companies, and even more rarely formerly addressed in a strategic fashion. In my experience, this is because sponsoring departments become trapped by a focus on the training issue (insufficient English proficiency) rather than the broader business issue, e.g. the successful project completion by a multinational team.
The sponsoring team will deliver the biggest impact by leading the creation and implementation of a set of common standards which all colleagues globally are to follow to ensure communication in English is as effective as possible. These standards can be as simple as:
- Recognizing the communication barrier that naturally exists between people of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and having the mindset to be an active agent in overcoming it.
- Slowing down when speaking.
- Avoiding unfamiliar jargon, acronyms, and colloquial expressions.
- Checking for understanding.
- Helping coworkers.
When a company successfully embeds these behaviors into its workflow, it realizes two benefits: efficiency is increased, and the non-native speakers improve their English skills more quickly and consistently.
Formal Learning Programs
Even assuming that an organization has their managers fully on board, and native speaker colleagues are holding up their half of the bargain, responsibility for improving English skills ultimately rests with the employees themselves. At the same time, while it is possible for employees to develop their communication skills exclusively on their free time, learning programs which are resourced by the company and built tightly around short and long term business performance objectives stand the greatest chance of having a timely impact.
To give employees the best chance of fully benefiting from a formal training program, either in-house or outsourced, it needs to include the following characteristics:
- Learning objectives need to look at feel relevant to the employees’ job, either current or in the near future.
- The content of the program needs to be engaging, at the appropriate level. For busy employees with many conflicting demands on their time, this is especially critical.
- There needs to be ongoing, highly tailored feedback so that the employees know precisely where they need to improve and can focus their learning accordingly in the name of learning efficiency.
- The delivery of the program needs to be flexible, accommodating the employees’ work schedule and personal commitments
Fully implementing these three tactics is no easy task, and certainly depends on the sponsorship of a company’s top management with the full support of the HR organization. Companies which effectively embrace these recommendations will will be well positioned to develop a competitive advantage.