Language Barriers in Business

Corporate language learning The Boston Language InstituteIn the collective imagination of globalized business, buyers, suppliers and manufacturers communicate across borders at the speed of ethernet and are just as much at ease working with a company across the globe as with one down the block; however, business executives who deal with international transactions every day see things in a different way. According to a report  sponsored by EF Education First and carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, almost half (49%) of 572 senior executives from private and public sector organizations worldwide believe that communication misunderstandings and messages lost in translation have inhibited major international business deals and resulted in significant losses for their company.

The efforts to increase the flow of international business have focused on political and legal situations, but now that many of these barriers have been knocked down, the exchange has taken on a more of a human nature. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the executives interviewed believe that cultural and linguistic barriers have inhibited access to foreign markets and almost all agree that profits (89%), revenue (89%) and market share (86%) would increase significantly if cross-border communication were to improve at their company. At the same time, 49% of the executives do not believe that their companies are doing enough in the way of training the linguistic and communication skills of their employees, and 40% say that the recruitment of people with the skills necessary to work in a cross-cultural environment is not prioritized as it should be.

The current focus is on English- 68% of the executives think that their employees will need to learn the English language in order to see growth outside of their home market. Multilingual approaches are often ignored as they are “inefficient and can prevent important interactions from taking place and get in the way of achieving key goals,” according to Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley. The English-only approach is being adopted all across the globe, from Northern European countries which for many years have embraced English in a variety of contexts to other countries such as Japan and Italy which have traditionally resisted the Anglo-invasion. In 2010, the CEO of Japanese company Rakuten announced that all 7,100 employees of the multi-national retailer would have to become proficient in English within two years or risk demotion while the Polytechnic University of Milan decreed this year that by 2014 all post-graduate courses will be offered only in English (two-thirds of these courses are currently in Italian).

These moves have not come without opposition, both practical and theoretical. Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has encountered resistance to his plan among the workforce and has had to seek ways to help his employees buy in to the switch and achieve the language skills they will need. Says Emilio Matricciani, professor in the Department of Electronics at the Polytechnic- “The risk is that we will impoverish teaching; language is not an article of clothing that we put on. Thought depends on language and nuances will be lost.” Neeley, while recommending the English-only approach, recognizes the difficulties and potential downsides inherent to it. She points out that in a monolingual environment the self-confidence of non-native speakers may be eroded and performance may suffer as they may feel less inclined to participate in group work.  She notes that “once participation ebbs, processes fall apart. Companies miss out on new ideas that might have been generated in meetings. People don’t report costly errors or offer observations about mistakes or questionable decisions.”

While philosophical objections to the exclusive use of English in business all across the world may be raised, one thing is clear-the ability of an employee to communicate is paramount to his or her worth to a business in any field, from retail to electronics to research. Companies like Rakuten have found that providing language training to their employees and considering time spent on learning as work time is necessary to the success of their mission. Linguistic skills are increasingly more important in a world with more permeable borders and corporate language training should be a fundamental part of the activities of any business working around the globe.