Success Speaks Many Languages
The Importance of Multi-Lingualism in Business
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
As our society becomes increasingly globalized, the incentive for people to know and speak more than one language will not only seem advantageous, it will become de rigueur. While it is presently normal for persons in the United States to speak only English, the limitations of that reality will become more evident as the planet continues to diversify and cross-pollinate.
It seems almost humorous at this juncture that, in the past, people believed that babies indoctrinated with more than one language were at risk of not only being less intelligent, but of becoming schizophrenic. Of course, that theory has since been debunked. To be fair, present-day conjecture that multi-lingualism can create nurseries filled with budding geniuses is a bit far-fetched, as well.
One thing does seem certain. People who know more than one language are becoming increasingly more important on the job. “For businesses, the language skills of their workers – be it a language spoken in a new market they’re expanding to, or English, the global lingua franca – are just as important. In an Economist Intelligence Unit study … nearly 90 percent of managers said that better cross-border communication would improve the bottom line, while another study noted that 79 percent of companies that had invested in the English skills of their workers, had seen an increase in sales.”1
As long as most of us can remember, Americans have believed that English is the so-called international language of business. Thusly, most people felt that they didn’t really need to make the effort required to learn another language. It is now becoming increasingly evident that this mindset in not only antiquated, it is costing the country a lot of money. “The U.S. Committee on Economic Development (CED) suggests that American businesses lose more than $2 billion a year to language or cultural misunderstandings.”2
The Language(s) of Good Business
A high percentage of business leaders are beginning to see the multi-lingual light, believing that a work staff comprised of people who speak more than one language is good for the bottom line. They are absolutely correct. For one thing, a multi-lingual workforce can actually attract new business, particularly if companies do business outside of the country. It is increasingly important for negotiation, remaining competitive, and for customer service when catering to customers from different locations around the world.
“According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for interpreters and translators is expected to rise by 42% between 2010 and 2020. This only suggests that there is growing interaction between businesses or organizations that use different languages. Naturally, business executives who can already perform the functions of a translator or interpreter will be more preferred. This will also translate to better pay.”3
Obviously, companies that have diverse customer bases and those that do international business will benefit from having a multi-lingual workforce. But, can those workers who speak additional languages also expect additional compensation? Some number crunchers at The Economist have determined that workers with more than one language can earn an extra $67,000 over their lifetime. And that’s on the low side; according to estimates on the high end, bilinguals can make an extra $128,000 due to their language proficiency.4
Why Multi-Lingual Employees Are Better
So, what is it exactly about multi-lingualism that makes people better employees? Certainly it’s impressive. We all admire the person who can converse in more languages than one, but does it really make a difference in the workplace? “Evidence is growing that proves cognitive benefits for bilinguals. They can end up with improved attention, intelligence, and better verbal and spatial abilities. Likely as a result of structural changes in the networks and connections of the brain, this would suggest they have an increased capacity to process information.”5
Evidence also suggests that people who speak more than one language are more sensitive to other cultures and are often more open-minded than mono-lingual colleagues. It’s not hard to see why these attributes are important in a world in which borders have less meaning and diversity and the cultural awareness necessary to navigate in a cross-cultural world are increasingly important.
Bi-Lingualism and the Brain
“The brain, like any muscle, likes to exercise, and as it turns out, being fluent in two or more languages is one of the best ways to keep it fit and keep degenerative disorders like dementia at bay. In fact, bilingual people show noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s nearly five year later than people who are monolingual and only speak one language.”6
It turns out that learning a language stimulates the brain in the same way that exercise builds muscle mass in the rest of the body. Those who speak more than one language actually visualize solutions to problems in unique ways. Thus, by comprising teams made up of multi-lingual employees, the resultant cognitive diversity opens up businesses to new and creative ways of addressing problem-solving and conceptualizing.
As individuals continue to learn a language, the brain actually becomes stronger and is more stimulated. The resultant increase in gray matter causes the brain to operate with increased efficiency and speed. “Language learning is described as a kind of re-wiring of the brain which can form new neurons and connections among the intellectual network. So adding another language to your skill set is simply smart.”7
More Brain Benefits
The brain benefits of learning languages fan out to other functions important to being effective in a business setting. We get used to utilizing two or more languages simultaneously. There is evidence that shows those who speak more than one language are better equipped to filter out irrelevant information and are better multi-taskers. For example, “monolinguals and bilinguals have a similar brain response when the brain’s monitoring system is not taxed, but when the situation requires high monitoring demands, bilinguals are faster. Moreover, bilinguals would also outperform people who speak just one language in spatial working memory tasks.”8
Globalization Fuels Demand for Multi-Lingual Employees
As the world grows increasingly less monocultural and globalization continues unabated, the logic of learning additional languages becomes irrefutable. In business, companies are often interested in securing the services of personnel well-versed in specific languages which directly correlate to their operations. For the multi-lingual employee, this can translate into increased potential for earning and for more and better job opportunities.
With China at the forefront of many American cross-cultural business forays in recent years, English-speakers who also know Mandarin or other widely-spoken Chinese dialects are often highly regarded and sought after. Conversely, Chinese employers value their workers who are comfortable speaking English.
“Hal Johnson, a senior adviser and former chairman of global human resources at Korn Ferry, frequently counsels business school students and corporate executives about ways to stay on top of their careers. He frequently urges job seekers to learn Mandarin “as soon as they can, if they want to get a leg up on their competition and accelerate their futures. Anything that helps or speeds up their preparation can be a significant plus!”9
The World’s Five Most Multi-Lingual Nations
Though Dutch is the official language of Aruba, Spanish and English are also required learning in schools. On the street, Papiamento is spoken, a creole language based upon Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Spanish.
The natives speak Luxembourgish, a kind of German that Germans can’t understand because it is mixed with French. In addition, Luxembourgers converse in French, German and English, which are required in school.
English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin Chinese are official languages, but on the street many speak an English-centric Singlish language, based on English but punctuated with Malay and Chinese words.
Malay and English are widely spoken, as is Manglish, a creole-affected English. Indian descendants speak in their familial tongue, while Chinese Malays often speak many dialects (Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien).
5. South Africa
South Africa has eleven languages which are considered official. English is most common in urban locales, while the Germanic Afrikaans and nine Bantu languages such as Xhosa and Zulu are often spoken. 10
The U.S. Lags in Languages
Despite the benefits of multi-lingualism in the workplace, not many companies in the US have a high percentage of employees who speak more than one language. While top-level business leaders acknowledge the need for a more diverse language set in the workspace, according to Forbes.com, two-thirds report that less than 50% of their employees have professional proficiency in more than one language. Thirty-six percent report having less than one in 10 multilingual employees.
“Other countries beyond the U.S. (like Britain for example) have established progressive initiatives to make their workforce more multilingual to improve their economic advantages. Yet the issue goes largely unaddressed in America.”11
Workspace Language Etiquette
Beyond the benefits of a multi-lingual workforce, having one comes with its own special set of considerations. Polyglot problems can proliferate without a proper application of language etiquette in place.
For example, if a business workforce speaks primarily English, that same workforce might feel a degree of discomfort if two or more people in the office or conference room begin to converse in a language unfamiliar to them. Left unaddressed, such situations can result in what Susan Warner terms a language-hostile environment.
Warner, president and general counsel of Human Resource Trouble Shooters, a Philadelphia consulting firm, had this to say on the subject. “If you can speak English, you should,” she says. “It’s very disconcerting to have different languages spoken. It’s rude, and it increases the chances of people not understanding each other.” She suggests employers should provide English-language instruction. 12
Like Warner, some feel the use of group-familiar languages in the workplace is inappropriate. It can make people feel as if the things are being said in secret, or it can even foster feelings of paranoia, when a worker feels as if they might be being talked about in a language they don’t understand. In most instances, these feelings of exclusion are unwarranted, but the dis-ease these situations may produce can be counter-productive at work. Establishing guidelines of multilingual work etiquette can be helpful in alleviating a language-hostile environment.
Professionals in managerial roles and social workers would do well to consider learning a useful foreign language to improve communication and safety in the modern workplace. Hugh Tranum, publisher of the newsletters, Managing Diversity and HR Fact Finder “notes that particularly in technology and marketing, workers are now hired because of fluency in languages like Chinese and Korean as well as Spanish. “There will be an amalgam of languages spoken in the workplace,” he says. “It’s a fact: People who don’t speak those languages may not know everything that’s going on.” 13
Increased Sensitivity to Other Cultures
Along with multi-ligualism, it is imperative that those interacting on a global level have an understanding of the cultures they are encountering. Some forward thinking businesses are incorporating intercultural skills training into their training curriculum in addition to language training. Such training empowers companies by giving them the ability to not only converse and relate on a business level, but to go beyond with the type of personal communication skills that make international clients feel comfortable and welcomed.
Language Training for Tomorrow’s Business Leaders
When considering language training in the workplace, it is worthwhile to consider efforts made towards beginning earlier and providing multi-lingual education for children; what better way to prepare them for the global future that awaits them.
“Dozens of studies have claimed that, among other things, learning two languages in early childhood improves a whole host of cognitive abilities, making the brain more adept at switching between tasks, focusing in a busy environment, and remembering things. Learning and using two languages, these studies imply, clearly make children’s brains better.”14
Languages are most easily learned by children. For them, any language will be absorbed as easily as English. In most countries, learning another language is not only encouraged in school, it is a requirement. Looking down the road, introducing languages to children is definitely advantageous to them later in life. In addition, reading and writing skills are significantly enhanced when accompanied by language training.
Children experience more self-esteem and confidence when they are acclimated early on to different languages and cultures. It stands to reason that this same training heightens their awareness of other cultures and helps them to develop a higher sensitivity to the differences in people they will encounter along life’s path.
Of course, future business-related considerations are worth looking at where children are concerned. “Career prospects are multiplied many times over for people who know more than one language. Helen Riley-Collins, president of Aunt Ann’s In-House Staffing in San Francisco, said more than half her clients request nannies who speak another language. “Families who are involved in international business are thinking ahead,” she said of her clients, many of whom work in high tech, investment banking or finance. “They want to give their children a head start in business in 20 years.”15
Late-Life Benefits of Multi-Lingual Living
Of the many proven benefits of a multi-lingual existence, one of the most interesting and most hopeful is the possible delay of Alzheimer’s onset among those who speak multiple languages. Here is a capsulized glimpse of one particular study of interest:
“Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium … studied 134 people who were all undergoing treatment for probable Alzheimer’s. 65 of the participants were bilingual or multilingual and the rest were monolingual. The final analysis from the researchers showed that both the manifestation and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s occurred at least four years later for the bilingual or multilingual participants.”16
In review, it was posited that speaking more than one language retards the decline of cognitive functions in much the same way that exercise keeps the body’s muscles from atrophying.
An Unparalleled Depth of Understanding
SIS International Research is uniquely qualified to grasp the implications and real-life application of multi-lingualism in the workplace. In addition to our various business locations around the globe, our daily business outreach puts us in contact with professionals and working people from myriad nations and many unique cultures. Our years of experience, both domestic and internationally, give us an unparalleled depth of understanding and sensitivity regarding language and cultures, at home and around the world.
Our skilled staff is comprised of personnel from many countries and cultures who offer our clients the true benefits of their multi-lingual capabilities and their broad scope of international experience. When you wish to bridge gaps of language, culture and communication anywhere in the world, we’re here to make it happen.
The following resources were utilized in the development of this document:
SIS International Research is uniquely qualified to grasp the implications and real-life application of multi-lingualism in the workplace. In addition to our various business locations around the globe, our daily business outreach puts us in contact with professionals and working people from myriad nations and many unique cultures.
Years of experience, both domestic and internationally, give us an unparalleled depth of understanding and sensitivity regarding language and cultures. Our skilled staff is comprised of personnel from many countries and cultures who offer our clients the benefits of their multi-lingual capabilities and their broad scope of international experience. This experience allows us to offer true, and culturally relevant, insights that answer clients’ most pressing business challenges.