According to a 2012 poll, nearly half of executives at global companies believe language barriers negatively impacted cross-border deals and caused financial losses. This challenge is still very real today. How can companies competing across borders overcome these issues, and is a global business language the true answer?
The Challenges of Cross-Boarder Communication
Communication misunderstandings – the main barrier to major cross-boarder transactions for just about half of the 572 global business executives participating participating in a 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit poll. This was especially true for companies in Brazil and China, with 74% and 61% respectively saying they have had financial setbacks due to unsuccessful cross-boarder business.
Though it’s been six years since the publishing of the report, the issues it describes are very much relevant.
With so much of the world interconnected, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that people operate similarly regardless of where they live and work.
Globalization has done a great deal to bring people together and spread ideas across global populations; however, linguistic and cultural norms still dominate when it comes to forming financially successful cross-boarder business relationships, or with managing large international firms.
There are some methods that have been explored to help overcome language barriers in global business – such as policies mandating one, common corporate language.
The idea is by using one language to conduct all business, a company will increase effective communication with their own international team as well as in cross-boarder relations.
But does it work?
English As A Global Business Language – The Way Of The Future?
For many companies, the lingua franca of cross-boarder transactions and business is, unsurprisingly, English.
It is increasingly being mandated as a common corporate language around the world.
Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of the Japanese company Rakuten (Japan’s largest online marketplace comparable to E-bay and Amazon) took this idea quite seriously.
He had everything at his company translated from Japanese into English, including the cafeteria menu! This way the English-only policy was enforced as part of the daily routine.
He also implemented an initiative requiring employees to demonstrate English proficiency or risk being demoted. Although this model received some criticism, reportedly it also helped to bring the company international success.
Rakuten isn’t the only company following suit – others include Nissan (headquartered in Japan), Siemens (Germany), and Sodexo (France). However, though the policy may seem to solve a rather complex communication issue, it does face a fair amount of challenges.
The Problem With English Only as a Global Business Language
The aim of English Only policies is to help decrease communication barriers, but they can end up creating more.
For some of the aforementioned companies, the English Only rule applies mostly to senior executives – regular employees still communicate in their native languages.
However, assuming that a full global business language policy were to go into effect, such as with Rakuten, this could create issues in many areas:
- Employees feeling uncomfortable with their ability to communicate in the new languages
- A sense of culture-loss
- Workers feeling as though they are at a disadvantage by not speaking the language well enough
- Miscommunication brought about when not everyone fully understands, or when the use of the language dominates cultural aspects to business that are just as important
Linguistic and Enforcement Challenges
Learning a language is difficult for most individuals, and people are often insecure about using their second language in front of others for fear of making a mistake.
It’s therefore easy to imagine that workers may feel uncomfortable when forced to perform daily business tasks in English.
It could cause them to feel that they possess less effective communication skills to perform their job.
Global business language policies can also be considered unjustified, as workers naturally communicate better with each other in their native languages.
Moreover, “Business English” may not be useful during conversations between employees that require everyday language, and individuals could become resentful of the fact that they are not able to use their native language in their own country.
Then there is the trouble with enforcing a common language – not all employees or departments will comply. Many may revert back to speaking to each other in their native language when unchecked.
One study, reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that some employees in Asian companies admittedly scheduled meetings at inconvenient times for native English speakers so that they could conduct business meetings in their own language.
However, rather than always being a result of noncompliance, reverting to conversation in one’s native language when around other native speakers is something that often happens naturally.
Linguistic barriers aside, culture also plays a big role in the execution of an English Only policy.
Cultural barriers arise in two ways with a common corporate language, the first regarding an individuals sense of identity that is found through their native language, and the second regarding how that sense of identity impacts foreign business on a broader scale.
It is widely known that cultural identity has strong links to one’s native language. Therefore being required to perform business in a foreign language can, for some individuals, be discouraging, viewed as suppression of one’s personality, and can even feel punitive.
On a higher level if language is indeed connected to cultural identity, and if foreign business practices often operate according to societal norms based off of this cultural identity, using a single, foreign language (such as English) to conduct business risks unknowingly overlooking important differences in professional behavior.
Without the help of a cultural ambassador, these issues can interfere significantly with negotiations and of course with profits.
Thus a global business language policy can unintentionally create more barriers – both linguistic and cultural – that interfere with communication in business.
But, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit report, 89% of participating companies said that linguistic and cultural barriers interfere with their efforts to expand internationally and are in part attributable to financial losses.
Furthermore, 51% identified differences in cultural traditions, and 49% differences in workplace norms, as being the biggest contributing factors negatively impacting cross-border relationships.
With more than 3/4s of those surveyed reporting that they had plans to expand internationally, what’s then to be done about the problem of cross-boarder communication?
Planning For A Global Business Language
While a global business language policy has its fair share of challenges, it should not necessarily be written off.
Rather, businesses looking to implement an initiative such as this need to approach it in a holistic, employee-focused manner.
Often, the solution is to offer language classes to employees or send managers abroad to gain international exposure – but there needs to be a larger focus on support overall.
When implementing an English Only policy with employees, a few things should be considered:
- Language classes and support should be offered for an extended period of time to ESL learners.
It takes time to acquire a new language, and it takes more time to feel comfortable using it in a professional setting. Supporting employees throughout this process can help them build their skills while diminishing feelings of resentment or discomfort.
If employees are nervous about their language ability, those with greater fluency should encourage them to participate more in English – and make it known that it is okay to not have a perfect grasp on it right away.
Daily interactions in non-stressful situations – such as team building exercises – could also be encouraged between peers, where they can feel free to make mistakes and learn.
- Employees should not be faulted for using their native language during all interactions. Instead they should be invited to incorporate their new language into their existing lives.
Language is, after all, a huge part of their identity and tied to their overall well being. Anything that affects that can render workers less efficient, or even resentful.
Instead, employees should be encouraged to challenge themselves to use English during as much of daily business as possible, but not made to feel less able to perform their jobs if they aren’t quite fluent yet.
Reward systems are one way this could be encouraged.
- If possible, after meetings where not all present are fluent in English, recap sessions could be provided.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be done in the employees native language either. Instead higher levels (or those with a greater grasp on English) can meet with their counterparts who are not quite fluent, after meetings.
Here they can discuss, in English, the employees’ understanding of what was talked about, and what the key takeaways of the meeting were. If it is clear that important points were missed, these can be discussed in the employees’ native language.
- Cultural training should be incorporated into a global business language push.
Though the language spoken in global business may change, the cultures of those involved will not, and will still carry influences on how professional relationships are formed.
As such, it is important to ensure either your employees are made aware of important distinctions in business practices around the world, or that an appropriate cultural ambassador is present during critical meetings.
At times, a professional interpreter could serve as such an ambassador for both the linguistic and cultural challenges faced in cross-boarder communication.
When English Only Doesn’t Work
Some, like Rakuten, have reported financial success with policies implementing one global business language. In other instances however, English Only policies have had limited success in terms of being embraced by employees.
In this case, another tool being used increasingly to solve the issues of cross-boarder communication is machine translation. Advances in the technology behind MT has progressed it far beyond its capabilities of just a few years ago.
In theory it can be relied on to translate basic communications and correspondence. However, it certainly does not allow for accurate, culturally relevant communication during a critical business meeting, or provide translations meeting standards for important legal documents.
Another option available to business is turning to language service experts – namely those who work in translation and interpretation.
Language service providers (LSPs) are able to mitigate communication and cultural barriers via trained and experienced translators and interpreters. If bilingual employees are not available, and if conducting business solely in English is not an option, LSPs are by far the best solution available for companies.
Overcoming language barriers may well become a thing of the past, but for now if one global business language is going to succeed, businesses need to have a more employee-oriented approach to implementing policies.
When all else fails, translation and interpreting services remain one of the most effective ways to ensure success with cross-boarder communication.
- Economic Development Competing Across Borders. The Economist. April 2012.
- Wall Street Journal “Language Barriers Blamed for Miscues”
- Harvard Business Review “Global Business Speaks English”
- BBC “The International Companies Using Only English”
About Language Connections:
Language Connections is one of the top language service companies in the US. Over the last 30 years, we’ve focused on providing the best business translation services, interpreting services, as well as interpreter training and customized language training programs. In addition to top-tier corporate language training, we offer certified corporate interpreters and professional business translation services in 200+ languages. Our network includes linguists with backgrounds in all major industries. They’re ready to meet your needs, whether they’re for technical translation services, legal translation, government translation services, international development translation services, education translation services, life sciences translation, or something else. Reach out to us today for a free quote on our cost-efficient and timely translation services, interpreters, or other linguistic services.
Language Connections LLC
2001 Beacon Street, Suite 105,
Boston, MA 02135