“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin
We recently made the case for more and better foreign language education in schools. Thousands of educators and students took interest, sharing the post and championing the cause. But employers should be paying attention, too.
As businesses in nearly every industry—from energy to pharmaceuticals—expand into global markets, the ability to understand foreign cultures and communicate with foreign counterparts is a core component of business strategy. Language training makes this possible, increasing engagement with and retention of both customers and employees.
Why train employee language skills?
Knowing a potential or current customer’s language provides many competitive advantages, including:
- Reaching new markets and increase revenue: Language skills can attract new customers that were previously unreachable due to language barriers. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s global survey of 572 senior executives revealed that enhanced international communication skills improved revenues (89%), profits (89%) and market share (85%).
- Communicating more meaningfully with leads and clients: Part of learning a language is learning how people communicate. In Scandinavia, for example, there is no concept of small talk, whereas southern Europe values personal conversation before talking business. These things matter: according to that same survey, nearly half of 572 senior executives interviewed reported that “misunderstandings have resulted in financial losses after a major cross-border deal has fallen through”.
- Creating culturally relevant marketing materials: Companies do not operate in a vacuum, but within a certain culture. It’s important to identify that culture (in which language plays a large role) and market accordingly. Guinness, for example, “cultural relevance with their Made of Black campaign […] through a thorough immersion into the different cultures of several African countries to understand the younger audience there.”
- Answering support cases in the customer’s language: The benefits of engaging potential clients in their native language extend beyond marketing and sales. In a 2014 report by the International Customer Management Institution, 83.6% of responding companies reported “a strong correlation between loyalty and the customer experience”.
- Signaling your international expertise to leads and customers: Any company can outsource language needs to translators, but in-house language skills can win customers. The Managing Director of global PR agency ING Media says “the fact the staff are multilingual has had a direct impact on its success with winning international work”. The firm sends account managers with local language skills to visit with international clients and keep up with local news that might affect them.
The return on investment in employee language skills leads to internal benefits as well, including:
- Recruiting and retaining top talent: Employees care about career development, so much so that “lack of career opportunities” is the number one reason employees say they leave a job, according to business advisory firm CEB. Language training provides employees with opportunities to grow in their career, travel, and take new responsibilities. And having a reputation as a good employer who takes care of employees will attract more top talent.
- Showing employees they are valued: Investing in employees signals that they—and their work—are valued by the company. This encourages more hard work and keeps your team engaged with the company.
- Preparing employees to adapt and thrive in international assignments: Language training prepares the employee (and potentially their family, if the training is extended to dependents) to navigate a new country and culture with greater ease. The value of global readiness cannot be overlooked, especially given that 42% of international assignments are judged to end in failure according to a Right Management survey from 2013.
- Improving employees’ English language skills: The cherry on top of a second language is an improvement in your first language. As you ingest the grammar rules, syntax, and other complexities of a new language, you gain more knowledge of the mechanics of language. This awareness can carry over to your first language, making you a better speaker and writer.
In the past, language training was impractical for many companies and organizations.
Of course, the benefits of language training have been the same for many years, so why aren’t more companies providing it?
Until very recently, language training took too long and cost too much, making it impractical for small- and medium-sized businesses, non-profits, and so on.
The more disruptive and costly something is, the less it can be used. Imagine that an employee is removed from their normal job and sent to a school somewhere for language training. Add up expenses for travel, facilities, teachers and administrators, student food and lodging. Add to that the estimated dollar value of the disruption to operations because that person is now unavailable to do his or her job.
A two-week training course, typical for many professional skills, is expensive enough, but developing language proficiency takes much, much longer. Beyond the beginner levels, even two more months of training moves the needle only slightly. So why bother?
Thanks to developments in technology and methodology, language training is now more viable for companies and organizations of all sizes and sectors.
Remember sitting in the passenger seat trying to fold up your giant road map? Finding your way around was revolutionized almost overnight by GPS and Google map-style apps. That same degree of change is now available to language learning and teaching—new technology and delivery makes it possible.
When it comes to languages, technology can:
- execute some aspects of instruction faster and more reliably than human instructors (particularly mastering new words, phrases, and grammar concepts)
- remove time and place requirements and bring dispersed learners together
- drive user engagement with progress and game dynamics
- seamlessly incorporate current, culturally rich authentic materials
- make students’ effort and progress more visible and reportable to administrators
At the same time, some aspects of language are better introduced by human instructors, who can plan and direct communicative activities during class time.
It’s the flipped classroom model adapted for languages—let technology and human instructors each do what they do best. Learners memorize words and phrases before class, then put them to use in peer-based activities like role playing or debates. Best of all—thanks to new technology, it can all be delivered virtually.
Instead of traveling to a language school for 2 weeks (or realistically much longer in the case of languages), employees stay where they are and do the training part time.
Transparent Language has already piloted programs like this with government agencies and other organizations for whom language skills are not optional. The 12-week remote course includes 4 hours of full-time instruction per week—three hours spent learning on the CL-150 or Transparent Language Online, and 1 hour doing intensive communication with an instructor and/or classmates.
These remote programs are delivering proficiency gains in line with traditional classroom training programs, but at far less cost and disruption. At Transparent Language, we’ve made that our mission: train languages faster, in more domains, with less disruption and better retention.