When we study the economic history of the 20th century; the rise of capitalism, the breakdown of tariffs and the gradual broadening of trade have all featured predominantly in the post-war landscape. Indeed, global trade has never been easier. Deregulation of financial markets have enabled people to buy, sell, hedge and exchange complex products and instruments across cyberspace with ease. The trade of manufactured products has shifted from West to East but commodities remain in huge demand as the global population inexorably races towards 8 billion. So what is the language of business? Some say it's English. Others, Mandarin. Perhaps it's actually accounting!
English. A Global Revolution
It's hard to argue against English as being the real answer. It's spoken by 1 in 4 people, is widely considered the fastest spreading language on the planet and is estimated to be the lingua franca for 1 billion internet users. When you add to this the colonial effect - it's spoken widely on every continent, it isn't easy to ignore.
Why English Only
Why are companies considering 'English only' policies for their global offices? In a nutshell. Competitive pressure. If you want to buy or sell, you have to be able to communicate with a diverse range of customers, suppliers, and other business partners. If you’re lucky, they’ll share your native language—but you can’t count on it. Companies that fail to devise a language strategy are limiting their growth opportunities to the markets where their language is spoken.
Language differences can cause an information bottleneck, when geographically dispersed employees have to work together to meet corporate goals. Better language comprehension gives employees more firsthand information, which is vital to good decision making.
In a rapidly shrinking business world, mergers and acquisitions remain crucial to gaining market share and establishing footholds into emerging markets. Cross-cultural interaction is notoriously tricky and a uniform language strategy is a good starting point in order to overcome potentially challenging and misleading communication.
Adopting A Global Language Strategy
Accept, accept and accept!
So there's a rationale for having a single language strategy. How do you go about adopting one successfully? Countless organisations have fallen at this hurdle, some have stumbled through it, others refused like juvenile show-horses.
My guide begins with acceptance of some simple facts. Accept as a board of directors that it isn't easy. Accept that it is a radical step; accept that it'll be met with resistance from employees; accept that performance and team dynamics may suffer and last but by no means least, understand that national pride and identity run deep in the human psyche.
Obstacles to Success
Companies fail to involve all their workers. A core obstacle to successful implementation of a single language policy. –Leaders should make a persuasive case for why it matters to employees and the organisation. Employees must be assured that they will be supported in building their language skills. Company-wide cultural awareness training will help non-native speakers feel heard and valued and leaders should rally workers behind using English to accomplish goals, rather than learn it to meet proficiency standards.
Managers are referees and enforcers and must take responsibility for ensuring compliance. They need training in how to address sensitive issues arising from the radical change. Groups should set norms prescribing how members will interact and all managers should monitor behaviour accordingly.
–Native speakers can learn to speak more slowly and simplify their vocabularies. They should refrain from dominating conversations. They must encourage non-native speakers to contribute. They may also need coaching on how to bring along less proficient colleagues who are working at a disadvantage.
–Non-native speakers have a responsibility to comply with the global English policy and should refrain from reverting to their mother tongue, even in informal meetings or communications. Something that is a lot easier said than done, I admit.
Here's a selection of common responses from non-native speakers:
Don't just offer language classes and box-tick the job as 'done'
When companies merely announce the new policy and offer language classes rather than implement the shift in a systematic way, Non-native speakers can feel that their worth to the company has been diminished, regardless of their fluency level. Employees often worry that the best jobs will be offered only to those with strong English skills, regardless of content expertise. Low-fluency speakers report worrying about job advancement because of their relatively limited English skills and employees often underestimate their own abilities or overestimate the challenge of developing sufficient fluency.
The bottom line is employees stop participating in group settings; processes fall apart and companies miss out on new ideas generated in meetings. In many cases, people don’t report costly errors and no longer offer observations about mistakes or questionable decisions. Engineers report a loss of important information.
In Part 2 - Global Business - Adopting A Single Language Strategy
I examine closely the types of framework companies can devise to smooth the process. I'll look closely at methods to ensure employee engagement; analyse good behavioural habits and consider more closely cross-cultural barriers.
CEO, Tangent Training Co. Ltd
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