Businesses are going more and more global. I know this, you know this – everyone with the smallest knowledge of American industry knows this. And it’s not going to stop, not until it’s normal for major companies to have a presence in Antarctica.
To successfully conduct business outside of the U.S., many times employees have to communicate in a foreign language. In 2011, a Bloomberg study found Mandarin Chinese, French and Arabic were the top most useful languages in business following English.
So, do your global employees know something other than “Ni hao!” in Mandarin? Chances are they don’t, and that can hurt your bottom line. A study done by the Committee of Economic Development found that U.S. companies lose close to $2 billion dollars a year because of cultural or language misunderstandings.
Making sure employees learn a language and the nuances of a foreign culture means a lot more than giving them the ability to understand if the business representatives they meet with in Shanghai say they want to go through with the merger or out for a burger.
“It helps keep companies looking more globally friendly,” said Kristy Kieleszewski, new markets marketing manager for Mango Languages. “(Although) English is the international business language, companies still need to maintain that respect for other cultures and have basic conversation skills in the languages of the countries they travel to.”
Here’s an example of how knowing small amounts of conversation work. In college I minored in Italian, a language that has yet to come in handy in what I do now as a learning and development reporter, but it was a great way to get credit watching Fellini films and learning how to impress the rest of my family by translating the Olive Garden’s menu with style and flair.
One of the first teachers I had was from Bergamo in Northern Italy. He explained that if we ever went up to a street vendor in his hometown and said “A sandwich, please,” the seller would understand and sell it for four Euro. If you asked, “Un panino, per favore,” no matter how hideous the accent, your tab would come to one Euro.
See? Just the smallest gesture toward understanding can get you “un panino” for a quarter of the price. Imagine what you could get during a business transaction.
So if language and culture skills are so beneficial to companies working abroad, why aren’t they teaching more of them? Part of it has to do with the assumption that no matter where you go, people know English. That might be true for the metropolitan areas like Hong Kong or Dubai, but once out of the cityscape, English can be hard to come by, even if potential customers or business partners are plentiful.
“Whether they look at just casual conversation or become completely fluent, whatever it is, it’s very important to keep honing or crafting their language and culture skills if you’re doing business abroad,” Kieleszewski said.
Something else that probably stands in the way of getting a company invested in language learning is they assume it’ll take a lot of money or a lot of time, two things that global firms might not have in large supply. Companies like Mango Languages offer training programs that can be done in short, on-the-go spurts via smartphones, but there’s always the good ole’ Rosetta Stone method.
What’s important is that employees understand the benefit of foreign language to their work and receive support from their bosses. Then they might be more inclined to devote time to brushing up on their Russian for that upcoming trip to Moscow.
Learning leaders should keep an eye on their employees’ language capabilities, especially when traveling or when the company is branching into regions like Asia Pacific or South America. Do research. There’s always room for more cultural knowledge. If your workforce has mastered every cultural and language skill out there, get ahead of the future and start learning Penguin for when the company does open that branch in Antarctica.
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