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English Rules

Since January, more than 40,000 “survival language kits” have been sent to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq. The kits, designed by linguists at the Department of Defense’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, are to help soldiers communicate with Iraqis during operations such as door-to-door weapons searches. They contain written phrases such as “Please step outside” and “Cover your women” and “The Marines are here to help you.” They are necessary because only 1 in 100 soldiers in Iraq can actually speak Arabic, a critical shortage that dramatically affects the ability of U.S. forces to communicate on the ground.

    Capt. Frank Von Heiland, an operations officer for DLI, says that the ability to communicate clearly with locals saves lives and that linguists “have prevented needless shootings of vehicles by being able to tell folks to stop.” The cost of not speaking the language, he says, can be extremely high. Soldiers might not be able to understand an Iraqi soldier, for example, who is standing right in front of them telling a comrade nearby that they are a good target, Von Heiland says.

    The shortage of foreign-language speakers affects more than just the military. The CIA has had to hire retirees and translators to fill critical intelligence roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And although the government is working to combat this dearth of critical language skills through recruiting and training, even officials at the DLI, which churns out 500 near-fluent Arabic speakers a year, say that the shortage will be a problem for a long time. (There are 3,800 linguists currently in intensive language training at the DLI; the largest numbers are enrolled in 63-week courses in Arabic, Korean and Chinese, at a cost of $49,329 per student.)

The ability to communicate clearly with locals saves lives and
linguists “have prevented needless shootings of vehicles by being able to tell folks to stop.”

    It’s reasonable to think that fast-growing multinational corporations such as Procter & Gamble–which has 98,000 employees in more than 80 countries–that are expanding their operations in overseas markets like China and Japan might be experiencing a similar need and pursuing similar solutions. But many experts say that this is not the case. While many global companies do offer some level of support for foreign-language training for employees who can demonstrate a business need, either by taking an expatriate assignment or working closely with international teams, many multinationals are not making a concerted effort to train their employees in languages other than English. Even so, Procter & Gamble, IBM and Intel are among the companies that offer compensation for employees who opt to learn a foreign language for business-related reasons, often an expatriate assignment. Despite headlines over the past couple of years decrying Americans’ lack of foreign-language skills and hyping the dire need for speakers of critical languages such as Arabic and Korean in the armed forces, multinational corporations aren’t feeling the same urgency.

    In fact, as diverse cultures inch closer through global commerce and technology, training executives and managers to communicate locally is, surprisingly, a very low priority. Unlike military forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, American corporate expatriates have the luxury of communication that comes to them easily. Their native tongue is English, and English, experts say, is the undisputed language of business. Because of this, most multinationals are not finding a major business need to train their employees in any other language, even though U.S.-based companies are entering more and more foreign markets. “English is the language of commerce,” says Chris Van Someren, president of global markets at Korn/Ferry. “There’s very little commercial application for foreign-language skills. Because of that, the need to help expatriates learn local languages is not high on the corporate agenda.”

    But even though English may be the primary avenue of communication across cultures, some say that expatriates unschooled in the local language are at a distinct disadvantage. Nancy Lockwood, a human resources content expert at the Society for Human Resource Management, recently completed interviews with 30 international human resources professionals on the effects of foreign-language ability on the work of expatriates. While there are no hard facts and figures to prove her theory, her research indicates that American professionals positioned in overseas assignments who can communicate in the local tongue are more effective. They can build relationships more easily and earn the respect of their counterparts more quickly, thus paving the way for smoother business dealings. She says that because the benefits of foreign-language ability are hard to quantify and play out in relationship-building rather than in hard numbers, the business advantages of expatriates who can communicate in the local tongue can be undervalued because the repercussions of not knowing the local language are not readily obvious.

“There’s very little commercial application for foreign-language skills. Because of that, the need to help expatriates learn local languages is not high on the corporate agenda.”

    “It’s not black and white,” Lockwood says. “What it comes down to is issues of rapport, respect and trust. If you’re working with someone and you want to really connect with them, it shows respect if you make an effort to speak their language. If you know the language, you can have a better understanding of the culture, and that can lead to trust. Trust can take a long time to establish, and it can take even longer if you only speak English.”

    IBM, which has 319,000 employees in 170 countries across the globe, won’t disclose the amount of money it spends on employee foreign-language training. Procter & Gamble doesn’t even track the amount of money spent on foreign-language training for employees, spokeswoman Vicky Mayer notes. Companies say that in many cases, the benefits of foreign-language knowledge can lie outside the specific realm of business. That’s one reason why the programs are optional. Mayer says that the benefits are more to help each employee adjust to his or her new surroundings and to promote the company’s policy of being a good neighbor and becoming integrated into local communities than to help the executive conduct actual business.

    “As with most companies, English is our language of business,” Mayer says. “However, we want our employees to be as comfortable as possible and to be able to integrate themselves into their new surroundings. Language training is a tool that gives employees a better sense of their new environment. It’s a tool to work with to achieve greater understanding of the host country.” The company will reimburse expatriate employees for language training for their spouses as well.

    At IBM, company-subsidized foreign-language training is provided on a case-by-case basis, says Mia Vanstraelen, director of human resources for learning in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. If employees need foreign-language skills to do their job properly–for example, an expatriate manager who functions as the point person between an overseas operation and headquarters or a sales employee who deals with clients on the ground overseas–the company will provide financial support. In addition, company support is often available for employees seeking business-related skills to further their own careers within the company.

    “In my experience, customers like to have discussions in their local language,” Vanstraelen says. “That’s for sure. But they also understand that if there’s a need for very specific expertise, we won’t always have that in the local language.” She points out that although the value the customer is usually looking for is in knowledge and expertise and not language, some international partners do prefer dealing with an IBM representative who speaks their language. “We have to make a choice,” she says. “Do we send the Italian speaker or do we send the person who is best technically? It’s a business decision we regularly face, and we make it on a case-by-case basis.”

    A less-than-aggressive attitude toward foreign-language acquisition at the corporate level is typical, some experts say, and the reasons range from high cost to a lack of necessity. English, the language of business, the language of technology, the language of Hollywood, is the language to know in global business even for traditionally non-English-speaking countries. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert and professor of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan, says that English is so dominant in business that when Koreans go to China, English is the language they use to conduct business. It’s usually a language the two sets of professionals have in common, he says.

“We have to make a choice. Do we send the Italian speaker or do we send the person who is best technically?
It’s a business decision we
regularly face, and we make it on a case-by-case basis.”

    As countries across the globe continue to require English instruction in schools, this reliance on English as the internationally recognized tongue for business will only increase. Chinese law mandates that English training begin in third grade. In India, more than 50 percent of citizens speak English in addition to at least one other language, according to the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. English is a target language, notes Susan Steele, provost at DLI. While Americans have to decide which second language might be most useful for their business careers according to their areas of interest, potential business professionals in other countries whose native language is not English have a clear answer to that question. And as more students worldwide learn to conduct business in English, its position as the language of commerce solidifies.

    Even multinationals that are headquartered in other countries are using English as the language of business, Van Someren says. He cites Sony’s Berlin headquarters as an example. In that office, which has about 400 employees, there are 45 different nationalities and almost as many languages, he says. “So the cost and effort associated with trying to teach everyone German when a lot of them will be moving on to other assignments in a matter of months probably doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says. Language acquisition can be a slow process, and companies that need someone who speaks a foreign language can’t wait years for the right employee to gain the skills. When knowledge of a foreign language is what is specifically required, Van Someren says, that’s the skill set human resources looks for. “Corporations don’t come to me and say, ‘Help me find a great manager and we can teach him Chinese.’ They do say, ‘Help us find a great manager who already speaks Chinese.’ “

    Lieberthal says that in many ways, training high-level employees in a foreign language such as Chinese simply doesn’t make good business sense. “It’s a large investment with high front-end costs.” In a language such as Chinese, which can take three years of study just to be able to converse, the rewards simply aren’t worth the time investment, he says. Top executives could harm their careers by taking time off to study a language, Lieberthal notes. “Business moves quickly. If you don’t move up, you’re out of the game. It would be hard to fit language training into the executive career ladder.”

    In addition, he says, even if an executive were willing to put in the time to learn a language, the training just doesn’t make economic sense. An employer would have to not only cover the cost of language training as well as the executive’s salary, but also absorb whatever financial burden results from lost productivity. An executive sitting in the classroom memorizing vocabulary could be an investment in the future, but it would be a very costly one, Lieberthal says, and one that might not produce great returns.

    Lieberthal says that multinationals operating in a foreign country such as China will try to use employees who already speak Chinese. But there’s always a tension in play because what is most important for an overseas operation of a multinational firm is to have a manager at the helm with the job expertise and the significant clout at headquarters to both run the operation and communicate well with higher-ups at headquarters. Usually, he says, the candidates at this level with these qualifications are not the ones who can speak Chinese. So corporations choose business expertise over language know-how and bridge the communication barrier with translators. It’s not ideal, Lieberthal says, but it’s the better option. “If I had a choice between someone raised in China with good language skills who came through an MBA program and someone within the corporation who had done start-ups in Korea or Brazil but couldn’t speak the local language, I’d take the latter person.”

    Lockwood says that without language skills, valuable cultural understanding is lacking, and it is harder to establish trust. That trust can be built through being able to communicate outside formal meetings, she says, and by making an expatriate more approachable to local employees or customers. The deeper cultural understanding can come from getting to know people on a more personal level–an extremely valuable asset when doing business in a place like Latin America, experts say–and also through specific and subtle language clues that would otherwise be missed. Lockwood asserts that language training does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition for corporations. The most common form of training, she says, is the less intensive model, which involves two or three hours a week and can fluctuate dramatically in cost.

    Some companies do rely on sending employees to language schools such as Language Exchange International in Boca Raton, Florida, or the Language and Cultural Center at Thunderbird, the Garvin School of Management, in Glendale, Arizona. Standard, non-customized immersion language classes at Thunderbird cost about $750 for 30 hours of instruction. At Language Exchange International, a private intensive class costs about the same–$750 for 32.5 hours of classes. Once the cost of training is added to travel expenses and lost productivity while the employee is away from work, the investment is just too high for some companies. Like Intel, they bring the classes in-house, or like many others, they stick to paying for part-time, after-work classes.

    Despite the reluctance of corporations to foot the bill for more extensive language training, employees with foreign-language skills remain sought after to fill various roles within companies. “Ironically,” Van Someren says, “there’s still a premium associated with people who possess multiple language skills. There’s still a marketplace perception that fluency makes them better thinkers and more sophisticated cross-culturally.” And some data exists to support the assertion that knowledge of the local language does, in fact, improve performance. A survey of MBA graduates from by top international business school Thunderbird, the Garvin School of Management, revealed that 82 percent of participants believe that knowing a foreign language gives them a competitive career edge.

    “In an ideal world, everyone would speak more languages and everyone would have technical expertise,” IBM’s Vanstraelen says.

Workforce Management, May 2004, pp. 47-50Subscribe Now!