Do you have a language strategy?

language strategy, internal communication

Someone suggested that several languages should be used for internal communication in multicultural groups spread around the world. My experience however, is that you get far better results if you select one language. Watch Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School assistant professor, explain why all companies need a language strategy:


It’s not for nothing that the majority of multinational companies, regardless of origin, have selected English as their main language.Presumably most of us agree聽that it’s important for a company to have one main language that it communicates in? Naturally employees in different countries don’t have to use it between themselves. But when communicating with other offices or in a project 聽with team members in different branches all over the world, strategic management is very much facilitated by using one language only. Communicating through interpreters is, in my opinion, a complicated way of working. Have thankfully only needed to do so in a handful of situations.

Are languages human rights?

Personally don’t understand what companies communicating internally in one language has to do with human rights? In my opinion businesses should not have to take language endangerment and preservation into account. 聽And certainly not be considered to violate human rights by using one language for interanal communication. Language may have a role to play in human rights when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees. But to include businesses is really going too far. That’s not to say that businesses have a right to violatge human rights in other ways.

Native speakers of the company language however, need to use easy language, slow down and help co-workers improve their skills, in say, English. And managers have to make sure that happens. Provided that part is carried out very well, a language strategy will benefit non English speakers by enabling them to learn a new skill.

Should companies have a language stratgegy? Do you agree with Tsedal Neeley and myself that, at the moment, English is the logical choice but that Mandarin may be selected in the future? Or do you have another suggestion? Are you of the oopinion that without a shared or common language efficiency in a company will suffer? Or do you agree with those who are of the opinion that it’s against human rights to make employees communicate in a language that’s not their native one? If so should wwe use a multitude of languages and interpreters for internal communication?

Video: HarvardBusiness – 聽Picture: World Economic Forum)

94 thoughts on “Do you have a language strategy?

  1. People have the right to speak in their mother tongue but when doing business there should be a level of compromise and flexibility. English is definitely the default language in many organisations.

  2. Great points around language, though I'm sure the politics of language will always intervene to slow the adoption of a single language down. Slow, not stop it.

  3. Having a common language code for communication inside international companies, such as aviation companies or shipping or in medical field, is not only important but it is vital. I can't think what would happened if pilots or doctors could not understand each other in English! However, using our mother tongue is our human right and i think that when the using of our language doesn't interfere with our job then, it is perfectly ok to use it.

    1. Exactly. Did you know that Swedish people who work for IKEA in Sweden have to communicate internally in English even in Sweden. Needless to say they chat amongst themselves in Swedish.

  4. Business concepts in a global economy can be complex. To avoid having misunderstandings, I think a common language to communicate could help you avoid all kinds of issues. At a former company I worked at we lost a very large client because of a situation similar to this, causing a miscommunication. That was a tough lesson to have to learn.

  5. Very interesting topic! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I totally agree that in our current multinational environment, the need for the only one language us super urgent, otherwise it would be impossible to coordinate operations and everything would take so much more time & other resources. Honestly I do not think that choosing one language over another for internal communication definitely doesnt violate any human rights, because the so called global lingua franqya is decided not within a company but in the world outside. Today its english, maybe it will be hindi in several decades. No one knows

    1. Glad you agree with me. What language it will be in the future time will tell. Personally doubt it will be hindi for the simple reason that educated Indians speak English. So it would be more efficient to keep English as the common language.

  6. It makes sense that English would currently be part of the language strategy. But interestingly enough, in my community there are just a couple of companies, at least that is what I've heard, that are supporting employees who want to learn Chinese. I will say, it's while it's often difficult for me to understand people without command of English, I find we each slow down, ask questions, clarify and give more feedback. All positive! Thanks Catarina.
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    1. So far it’s English but if the US ceace to be the only superpower that may change. Heaven help many of us if Chinese takes over. The language consists of thousands of charachters.

  7. English does seem to be the common.language across the world. It is the default language which makes it all so easy for us English speakers. So much so that we often take it for granted.
    I for one would like to be fluent in speaking another language.

    1. So far yes. But will that last. China is becoming more and more important. Personally can make myself understood in 7 languages. But when I called companies in China, even Hong Kong, the receptionists only spoke Chinese.

  8. English does very often seem to be the language of choice when dealing with people from different cultures. I can say that English speakers become very spoiled. As a down-side, it is harder for native English speakers to practice a new language because everyone speaks ours. I would say that it is a good idea to have one more global language when dealing with people from different countries. If the language changed frequently based on company, there would be many people constantly struggling to keep up with new languages.

    1. Good points, Erica. Personally can make myself understood in 7 languages. But when you call a multinational in China, even in Hong Kong, it's irrelevant because the receptionist does not speak anything but Chinese. Eastern Europe and Russia can also be problematic but more people speak English there now.

  9. I think this is a debate that was settled long ago, for all the reasons described in the video. For example, English is the common language of airline pilots. Just imagine if a non-English speaking pilot was trying to communicate with an air traffic controller in her native language who didn't speak that language. It's lucky that the world has progressed to the point where there is a form of communication that is universally recognized — if only we would use that language among world leaders to discuss world peace.
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    1. Am sure it is settled in the US, Jeannette. But don't forget that the United States only represents approximately 322 million out of the world's 7 billion inhabitants. What about global Chinese and Russian companies? In all major global organisations interpreters are used.

  10. I agree that a multinational company should have a policy about speaking one language. I think it should be the business original country that would determine what language is selected. Businesses have to create unity across country lines and this is one way they can do this. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Not surprised that you agree that international companies need a language strategy. But to use the country where the head office is may complicate things. How can for instance a Russian company that wants to succeed globally attract talent in the United Statesor Japan that speak Russian? The choice will be very limited.

  11. As business becomes more and more global I think it is imperative that business have a language strategy. Clear communication is essential to success. There is a huge margin for error if translators have to be involved in day to day communication of a company. WhenI was in college I worked as an interpreter for 2 weeks. A french company was installing new bells in our chapel and the workers were all english speakers. It was a huge eye opener for me as to the power of an interpreter. Although in this situation I wasn't really taking the risk of influencing political or ethical decisions, there are many instances where an interpreter does. Having a common language is an equalizer and ensures subtleties are as clearly communicated as the brad strokes.

      1. Perhaps but I see it as the opposite. By having a language strategy, which let's say, is that everyone in the company must speak English fluently enough to eliminate the need for an interpreter, then you are keeping communication at a one-on-one level. The language strategy remains a company policy, not a life policy and does not in any way prevent the use and nurturing of another language outside the business.
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  12. A business is not a person, though that seems to get overlooked a lot in the news and when policy is made. Choosing a common language is best for efficiency and simplicity.

      1. Global companies definitely benefit from such language strategies, but it’s different in schools. There’s so much pressure for non-native speaking kids to do grade-level coursework. That’s just not possible if the time isn’t taken to get their language skills in place. The teaching of language and schooling is a hot topic it’s hard to reach consensus on.

        1. In Sweden we have more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world. Kids from other countries swiftly learn Swedish at school and are also taught their native language. The problem however are the grown ups that find it really hard to learn the language. Not least since Swedish has 17 vowels compared to 8 in most languages. But as I said to one Syrian that started acadmic studies in Syria that were never concluded because of the war; you only speak a few words of English and no Swedish so you have to learn Swedish if you are going to be able to study at university here. If not, how is he going to support himself?

  13. I think it's important for a company to be able to communicate in different languages if it's a global one. For local ones, I don't think it's as important.

    1. Lorraine, if a company operating in say, 52 countries use 52 different languages to communicate it will become too complicated to lead. What's worse the misunderstandings willl cost a lot of money.

  14. A common language to communicate the many complex and complicated concepts is so necessary when doing business in a global economy. It helps prevent misunderstandings or miscommunications which can lead to all kinds of issues. I have seen this happen in one of the companies I once worked. That very thing cost the company a very large client; a very hard lesson indeed. 馃檪

  15. I used to teach business English in Chile. I had some clients who were responsible for communicating with other company employees around the world via online reports. I agree with English being used as the international business language. It enables us to work and communicate globally. Because of the number of English teachers who are teaching English in China, and the push to learn English, I don’t believe Mandarin will become the next business language although this could prove disadvantageous to non-Mandarin speakers in the future.

    1. Absolutely, Michele, English is the best choice for the time being. Let's see if Mandarin becomes a choice long term. In the short term, definitely not, as you say. By the way, a lot of top Chinese business people do not speak English.

  16. I agree that companies should use one language for everyday business. Even countries like Kenya and India where their national languages are Swahili and Hindi -still conduct their business in English. A lot of countries train their doctors, chemists etc… in English . I do admire Europeans who seem to speak several languages as well as English.
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  17. I think if you insist on communicating in one language you run the risk of missing some employees. I'm sure that strategy works well for managers and higher but if you have large numbers of low or modestly paid employees in different parts of the world where there position doesn't require speaking English, you may be shutting them out from company messagng. I do think that if you have an "official" compay language you should include as part of that policy English language instructions for staff and need it.

    1. Ken a language strategy is mainly used for executives and staff working out of offices. When it comes to factory workers the languages they speak are normally used to keep them informed.

  18. I was just listening to something on NPR about language. Developing language, helps develop our brain. Animals can figure out a color, or right or left, but they cannot put the two together, such as right of the blue wall. The big impact is neither can babies, until they develop language.
    It’s seems like language is indeed what makes us human. I also believe that eventually there will be a universal language, a combination of different languages around the world. It may consist of Mandarin, English and Spanish all combined, or some other variation.

  19. A language strategy sounds like a good thing. It may perhaps be a moot point soon. Think Star Trek and the language translator. It is no longer far fetched to think you can speak your own language and have the other person understand you using a real time translating app. It's already being worked on and making good progress. For the moment though a language strategy is probably a smart thing.
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    1. Yep. Let's see what happens with that kind of apps. Do keep in mind that even when it comes to virtual teams you have to meet in person. When that takes place do you really think it's a good idea to use an app to communicate? Seriously only people who command a skill that is very unusual but essential for something will get away with that. Normal executives that don't command English or Mandarin, depending on what the leading language is, will simply not be in demand. There's inflation in education, remember:-)

  20. Hi Catarina, I agree that English for now and possibly Mandarin in future giving credence to the impact China has made in business today. Working for a multi cultural organization, I have seen the importance of a language strategy as you say. It is so easy for a group of similar language to slide into their language in a meeting at the annoyance of other people attending thus wasting time in repetition and delays. I do understand the agony that goes with some people trying to explain something in English with lost in translation results, but with time people do improve their language skills. And as you say, speaking slowly and empathizing with another, helps them understand you better.

  21. Hi Catarina,
    Now you have my curiosity piqued. When I saw the 1.75 billion referred to in the video, my immediate question was, what does the rest of the world speak by percentage?

    It's interesting to consider from an interactive engagement perspective. I think companies should have a language strategy, otherwise it leaves the door open for plenty of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and service delays.
    I agree, English is the logical choice. It would be neat to have a bird's eye into the future to see if Mandarin may be the next choice. English has many roots to Latin, maybe that or Esperanto would make great alternatives?

    Perhaps technology will come to the rescue. Maybe someone will invent software that detects natural speech, dialects and cultural idioms, and automatically translate and simultaneously channel it to each recipient in their own language.

    Have a great week!

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    1. William, the reason English is chosen is because of the dominance of first The British Empire and subsequently the United States. If English had not been chosen as the official language of the US it would not dominate the world today. As you know, German was almost chosen:-) Mandarin will long term become the next language because China will become the next super power. It's also questionable if America will remain a super power in the long run. Empires come and go and the US today display all the signs of an empire in decline.

  22. Catarina, I think its only natural that a company doing a global business would have a language strategy. It’s similar to when we came to Canada from Holland, if we hadn’t chosen to learn English, we would never have gotten anywhere in this country. The same thing with companies, if you can’t communicate with the people you’re doing business with, then you really can’t do business. That this language happens to be English is like Tsedal Neeley stated, it had a headstart around the world and is easier to learn than many other languages that have a great many local dialects. Very interesting post.

  23. I spent 25 years working in aviation. English is required of all ATC facilities – control towers and radar facilities. If you fly into a country whose language isn’t English, the communications will usually be in their language but if you appear on the scene and speak English, the controllers must do the same. It was interesting dealing with students at my flight school who were from other countries and helping them to get to know all the lingo. Planes sometimes “porpoise” but they never “dolphin,” as one young from Venezuela insisted. Sometime a couple of our local controllers expressed annoyance when someone didn’t understand a term. I don’t like that Americans tend to assume that everyone must know English but in aviation it’s a requirement.

  24. Good points about the importance of having a common language strategy. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a fan of sci-fi or not, but I feel like I have been waiting for Mandarine to replace English as the global language of business for more than 10 years. However, as noted in the video, for practical reasons that may never come to pass. The importance of plain language will also come to the forefront, not only because it makes communications easier, but because it makes them quicker.

    1. Glad, and not surprised, you agree with me Debra. Personally believe that in the distant future Mandarin will be the main language in the world. At the moment it’s not possible but the United States will not dominate the world in the future.

  25. Interesting Catarina, I've never thought about a company having a language strategy. Their conversation in the video did qualify it for those companies with a global customer base or presence. Makes sense. What's not surprising is for English to being one adopted today. No matter what country my husband and I have traveled to – from Canada to Italy to Egypt and so many in between, people everywhere speak English. Even the local coffee or gelato shops.
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    1. Of course it has, Time. But in the distant future Mandarin will most likely take over. You are young so it would be a good idea for you to learn Mandarin, if you have not already.

  26. I am in total agreement that a language strategy is necessary…English being the logical choice at this time. Human rights violation? Sigh…oh my…this is just crazy. But I agree also, that if you are English speaking and working in a foreign country you should learn their language! The city of Chicago is now teaching Mandarin to grade school students. Interesting but very forward thinking, I think.
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  27. Having a common language is very important. Since the spread of the American culture I think the language should be English. Obviously global countries are seeing the importance because today English is being taught in the schools. Having the one language throughout a company makes sense for the communications. With this said I think each country should still preserve their own language and not lose their heritage.
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    1. Yes, Arleen, so far English is the best choice of a common language. Maybe in the future it will be Chinese? Depend on how soon people all over the world will decide to learn the language.

  28. Interesting question for a Canadian, as our country is bilingual, meaning that all official documents and signage MUST be in English and in French. If one wants to work for the federal government, you pretty much need to speak French in addition to English. Funny thing is, in Quebec, they have banned English on all public signage. So anglophiles in and from outside of Quebec when visiting, sometimes have difficulty reading signs as they can't understand the French! I would prefer to see English being used as the universal language, with governments and large companies offering service in other languages as necessary via customer requests.
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  29. Catarina, I think the term language strategy is a bit too academic and conjures controversy. Every business dealing with cross national and multicultural employees and customers should as a matter of internal policy define its preffered language of internal communication. The primary objective here is that it unifies the workforce to face the market and grow their walletshare. However, if you choose to stretch this issue further you will be stepping on toes on which language is better than the other. strictly speaking language popularity in international economic relations simply suggests reward for dominance. today it is English and french, who knows tomorrow it might be Igbo language.

    1. Having a language strategy applies mainly to multinational companies operating all over the world. So it boils down to being practical and efficient. And ,not to forget, that the main objectives of companies is, simply put, to make money. All such companies, regardless of origin, have to chose one language for internal communication to function. And to chose Swedish, German, Arabic or Chinese simply doesn't work unless you only hire people of the same nationalities. If companies don't perform well they will cease to exist and the employees will be made redundant.

      Interesting that someone finally made a comment suggesting that it's an academic question and a question of dominance. We would be interested in knowing why companies have to take issues such as dominance into consideration. It's not a question of which language is better than other languages, simply a question of operating a company in the most profitable way. If Igbo was the most widely spoken language in the world, Igbo would be chosen. That's why in the future Mandarin may be chosen.

  30. I have worked internationally with people in finance and if the client couldn't speak English, they would always find a translator. It is because English has been dominant in the business world for so long.
    However, saying that my native language is English, having been raised there, but once in a while people have problems with my accent. I try and water it down dramatically so I am understood until I call the UK. My husband says he has no clue what I'm saying and asks me to speak English, so he can understand…

    1. True Claire, they will find translators. Using easy language and getting rid of accents help people all over the world understand us. Maybe you and your husbans could use geek expressions?:-)

  31. I think in an international situation then , at least at the moment, English would seem to be the common denominator. That said, should that not be kept for international communication? Surely if the predominant language in, for example, a French company is french, then it would seem a hardship for the majority of employees to be forced to speak a non-native language. One's position in the company must surely come into play.
    I also agree with Sherryl that Mandarin or Cantonese needs to become part of the school curriculum. US business needs to support the educational needs for future prosperity.

    1. Glad we agree that, at the moment, English is the best choice, A.K. Swedish multinationals have English as company language. That doesn't stop Swedes to speak Swedish among each other.

      Is it possible to study Mandarin already at "high school" level in the UK? Cannot remember if it is.

  32. I agree with the choice of a language for internal use but why english? There is a language called esperanto that should be considered as well

    1. Glad you agree, Anne. But how many people speak Esperanto? In most non English speaking countries English are thought as a second language, so for now, it's the logical choice.

  33. I agree, Catarina, that a common language needs to be used across business and politics, too, for that matter. English is, as you say, the global standard today (it used to be French, of course, hence the term Lingua Franca). Perhaps in future it might be Mandarin, but I doubt it as although there are clearly more native Mandarin speakers than those of any other single language, they are not so geographically and culturally diverse. English is taught as a second language in most countries where it is not the first language, which is what gives it such global reach.

    As for whether this impact human rights – I don't believe so for a minute. It is simply not practical to speak/write/understand the multiplicity of different languages around the globe. South Africa, with its 11 official languages is an example – in reality you will find that English is the first choice for communication officially, followed by Zulu and Xhosa. Others trail somewhat behind.

  34. Having one common language to communicate complex and complicated concepts is essential in doing business in this ever shrinking world. Doing otherwise can and will result in misunderstandings and misdirection leading to all manner of problems.
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  35. I am a little surprised this has come up and maybe it is due to my background, but in the companies I worked with English was always the common language. I could be wrong but isn't it taught in most countries that have their own language. That said in my country learning Asian languages have grown in popularity due to the increasing business connections with those countries.
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    1. It's normal that English is the main language in English speaking countries, isn't it Susan. Yes it is taught in most countries, if not all, with different languages. However, some people on social media, to my surprise, brought up human rights. Speaking your native language isn't a human right in a multinational company, is it? It would cost time and money.

  36. many of the offices in Toronto are multi cultural ones. Even though the main language is English, many employees love to communicate in their native languages among the same cultural employees. I found it very rude, while other people who can't understand that language is left alone.

    1. Thati's actually a good way of looking at it Bindhurani. Maybe the ones using their native languages instead of the main languages are the ones that are abusing human rights?:-)

  37. Flexibility is the key. English will remain the international language and it is not necessary to change that because it is indentifiable as such. This is the case even with the global rise in Chinese and Indian investment. They themselves would be the first, I am sure ( and from what my students tell me) not to demand change.. If it is working, why change it. As for the question, I return to the argument of flexibility and of course, one must recognise the fact that even if one knows several languages, if one has not had the exposure to that culture, then misunderstandings will abound. It is relavtively easy to learn a language, but the interpretation is another and since the anglophone language and culture has received massive exposure oer the years, between technology, music, films and so on, trend setting and the likes, there are still problems with non-native speakers making incorrect interpretations. You look at where you business is and you adjust accordingly. The human rights issue, in my opinion, does not enter into this argument as we aready have choice.

    1. Glad you agree with me that human rights have nothing to do with this issue, Gloria. Good points you are making. Am Swedish and have integrated in cultures all over the world. Saudi Arabia as you could see on the photo and Japan are the most different cultures I have learnt to understand which facilitate communication. However, nobody has the time to integrate in the cultures of all languages in the world. How many are there for instance in India alone?

  38. Thank you for this article. I learned something that I should have already considered. Language in business and the importance of using one language in communication.
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  39. There might be a reason why we cannot understand the languages of others because it can be their way to communicate to their culture. Most people cannot understand why do they speak different languages. This I think is because of differences of people in saying the thing they want from the others. Thanks for sharing this observation you have, it can help many people to interact with others.
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    1. Tracy, I speak 7 languages. Have also lived and integrated in cultures around the world. But the purpose of a business is, simply put, to earn money. It's hence not a good idea to communicate in a multitude of languages because you lose time – and money.

  40. Interesting observations from a business point of view as far as adopting English when it's not their native language. One of the things that I hope to see happen in the United States is that we start offering Mandarin in our public school systems. Where I live, the choices for foreign languages continue to be French and Spanish. I see the value in being able to read, write and speak Spanish if your career path is going to involve communicating with local consumers but for someone who is interested in a career dealing with big business, I see more value in being able to communicate in Manarin. It should at least be an option.
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  41. India has so many local languages that English is the language of choice at the work place. True, when speaking with colleagues from some countries, we do find communication difficult and one has to speak very slowly. Guess New Yorkers have to speak slowly when they talk with us. 馃槑
    I am not sure that Mandarin will take over, even as more and more people will learn it, to deal with their Chinese clients and suppliers.
    What do you think about Spanish as a language? With the crisis in the EU, will learning Spanish be put on the backburner by many?
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    1. True Lubna. Correct that it works both ways when it comes to India. Sometimes I don't understand Hinglish. Mandarine is a question mark. If it becomes the main language it will definitely take time. Speak Spanish but it's not as widely spoken as English. Besides in Brazil they speak Portuguese. So I don't beleive that will ever be an option. The two countries with most population in the worls is China and India. Have you thought about the fact that in all countries in the Far East the top companies are Chinese owned. If that trend continues around the world, Mandarine may become increasingly important. Another interesting fact I have taken note of is that all over the world that Chinese immigrants set up companies. Much more than other nationalities do.

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