Do you have a language strategy ?

Last week some on social media commented that several languages should be used for internal communication regarding my article about a multicultural group spread around the world. My experience however, is that you get far better result if you select one language to communicate in internally. Devote six minutes to watching Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School assistant professor, explaining why every company needs a language strategy:

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It's not for nothing the majority of multinational companies, regardless of origin, have selected English as their main language.​Presumably most of us agree 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  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?

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. And certainly not be considered to violate human rights by using one language for internal 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 to far. That's not to say that businesses have a right to violate 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 strategy? 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 opinion 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 we use a multitude of languages and interpreters for internal communication?

(Video: HarvardBusiness – You Tube)

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33 Responses to “Do you have a language strategy ?”

  1. Lubna Says:

    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. 8-)
    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?
    My recent post MBA at 16

  2. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  3. keepupweb Says:

    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.
    My recent post How to Add Follow Buttons to WordPress without a Plugin

  4. @jepaladino Says:

    Catarina – I agree that a company needs to use one language for every day discourse. Years ago I worked for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in the New York Office where English was the language spoken, although most of the employees were either from Puerto Rico or they were what we call "Nuyoricans," — New York Puero Ricans — all of whom spoke Spanish. While English was used for business, they often spoke in Spanish among themselves. I decided to take Spanish lessons which I did for a while and tried conversing with my peers, but it wasn't enough. The reality is you must have more than a working knowledge of a language — you must be fluent. This is critical, otherwise there is a strong possibility of misunderstandings and mistakes in the work to be done..
    My recent post Why Nobody Likes You

  5. tracyann Says:

    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.
    My recent post סולידריות

  6. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad we agree Jeannette.

  7. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good observation Sherryl. In Swedish high schools you can study Mandarin.

  8. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  9. Geek Girl Says:

    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.
    My recent post Bottlenose: the Social Media Manager

  10. Gloria Says:

    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.

  11. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you liked it Geek Girl. Good branding you did!!

  12. catarinaalexon Says:

    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?

  13. Geek Girl Says:

    Thank you Catarina! Coming from you that means a lot! :)

  14. catarinaalexon Says:

    My pleasure Cheryl, ooppss I mean Geek Girl:-)

  15. Bindhurani Says:

    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.

  16. catarinaalexon Says:

    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?:-)

  17. Susan Oakes Says:

    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.
    My recent post Get More Customers With This Simple Idea

  18. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  19. Susan Cooper Says:

    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.
    My recent post Shirred Eggs With Ham & Tomato Sauce Recipe

  20. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me Susan.

  21. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you for conveying your opinion Pranay. For now English is the best option. But it may change in the future.

  22. GuyW Says:

    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.

  23. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree, Guy.

  24. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you and I'm glad you like the topic.

    Have lived and worked all over the world and have never seen the company language lead to the culture the language stands for take over. A notable example is Saudii Arabia. They have adapted to shopping habits and the likes when it comes to US habits but their culture is very much Saudi Arabian and has nothing to do with the States. On the contrary. Japan fits the description I just gave for Saudi as well.

    Good article. She's right and it works the way she describes it if you look at say, an Indian, Japanese or Chinese multinationals as well. They favour their own nationalites. Even in Western multinationals you will find the same phenomena even in their home countries i.e. they want to promote people similar to themselves not only when it comes to nationality and gender but they, for instance,play golf together i,e, they know and trust them. Frequently true leaders of their own nationality are not promoted because they are seen as a threat by their superiors who are merely managers. Even within countries you have the "tribal aspect" and I don't think it will ever change. It's human nature.

    The world isn't fair, never has been and never will be unfortunately. It will most likely get better the more international the world becomes, but it will never disappear.

  25. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree about the importance of a language strategy, Bethany.

  26. Anne Bechet Says:

    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

  27. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  28. akandrewwriter Says:

    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 ..er 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.

  29. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  30. clairecappetta Says:

    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…

  31. nduneche Says:

    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.

  32. catarinaalexon Says:

    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.

  33. catarinaalexon Says:

    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?:-)

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