Why you need a language strategy

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Written by Armin Hopp on 18 February 2015

21st February 2015 marks the sixteenth International Mother Language Day[1], which was originally established by the UNESCO in 1999. The aim of International Mother Language Day (IML) is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as multilingualism across the world. It got me thinking about just how valuable multilingual and multicultural skills are in a today’s globalised business world.

For one thing, the right linguistic abilities will allow employees of a multinational organisation to communicate much more efficiently among each other. If they are open and sensitive to intercultural differences, this builds an environment of mutual respect and understanding. A culturally diverse workforce provides a rich source of perspectives, ideas and lays the foundation for innovation.

Of course, some cultural gaps are inevitable – the way people start a meeting in the USA might not be the same as in Spain. A Polish employee might address a senior manager differently to the way a Chinese person would. The good news is, if such nuances are recognised and addressed early on, conflict can be avoided. Training your workforce in cultural awareness and foreign languages will give them the abilities they need to handle these situations. On top of that, this type of training can be a rewarding and inspiring experience for staff. It doesn’t need to be a formal face-to-face training programme either – with the help of technology, these skills can easily be acquired with online courseware, in live virtual classroom sessions or via mobile apps.

Many organisations have opted for having one standard business language for all employees, no matter where they’re located. A new company perk might include letting employees spend a period abroad to discover the language and working culture of another country. Ultimately, strong intercultural and foreign language skills will harmonise relations among personnel, speed up processes and limit misinterpretations.

Multilingual business

But such skills can be extended and utilised beyond a company’s boundary, too. Knowledge of a second or third language means opening up the lucrative opportunity for new business abroad.  We cannot assume that, just because English has come to be the dominant business language, it is automatically spoken and comprehended flawlessly by all business people worldwide. In fact, the number of native Mandarin and Spanish speakers (955 million and 405 million, respectively) outnumbers those with English as their mother tongue (350 million)[2].

When dealing with clients or partners around the globe, soft skills such as cultural awareness or knowledge of the other person’s native language are a real competitive advantage. Not only will these abilities reduce the potential for error, they will also make the customer feel comfortable and able to express themselves openly. More than anything, clients wish to feel understood by their supplier, not just on a business level. A provider who can communicate with a customer taking into account their cultural and linguistic background will have a higher chance of winning a contract and building a successful and long-lasting partnership.

Scientific backup

There are other advantages, too. Did you know that learning a new language makes your brain grow? According to a Swedish MRI study[3], just three months of intense language study causes certain parts of the brain to increase in size. This includes the hippocampus, which helps consolidate information from short-term to long-term memory and is partially responsible for navigation, as well as three areas in the cerebral cortex.

Another study found that people who speak more than one language scored better on attention and concentration tests, regardless of whether they’d grown up bilingually or had learnt the second language later on[4]. So it’s never too late to start learning! A more long-term incentive is the fact that studying a foreign language is said to slow down brain ageing and delay dementia later on in life.

If these facts are not enough to convince you, here’s a final quote from the United Nations IML Day microsite, “All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Happy International Mother Language Day!

Armin Hopp is the founder and president of Speexx

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