In the global economy, it is vital to be able to communicate effectively with other cultures. With English the accepted world language of business, are ‘locals’ getting too complacent?

  • Sailing blindly into the unknown
  • How easy is it to learn?
  • Complacency amongst the Locals
  • Misguided support from business
  • Minding your Ps and Qs
  • Dividends for business

Sailing blindly into the unknown

A survey carried out by a language training company discovered that 9 out of 10 business travellers flying abroad, were unable to carry out business in the language of the country they were visiting. Only 7% claimed to speak the language of their destination to a degree of competence that they could actually close deals or negotiate transactions. In addition, only one-third of those surveyed felt confident in their ability to get by socially using their hosts’ language – the rest admitted to absolutely no language skills at all. Meanwhile, another survey of managers found one-third of them regarded language skills as vital to business success in the 21st century!

‘It’s the ignorance factor,’ says Nesi Davies. ‘If you depend on your customers speaking English, then of course you stand to lose out to those who make the effort to communicate with them in their native tongue. Even if the people you’re dealing with do speak English, they’re more likely to warm to you if you make an attempt to talk in their own language.’

How easy is it to learn?

What puts many people off learning languages is often the fear that they are too old to learn, that they don’t have time to learn, or the memories of dreaded school teachers making them practise their tenses again and again.

These days though, learning a language is a different matter altogether. Most instructional courses for businesses are run on the basis that people have other priorities. Berlitz, for instance, runs corporate group instruction courses where several employees can learn together. Many companies which have acquired foreign subsidiaries, or organisations which have themselves been the target of a takeover, have judged it wise to send key personnel, such as the board, chief accountant, HR people and top line managers, on language training.

Rene Ranti, an administration manager with a telecommunications company, and who’s fluent in French and Italian, believes language learning shouldn’t be difficult – but you do have to be determined and dedicated to succeeding. ‘If you just go to evening classes or a part-time course over several months, you may never get beyond simple conversational level – which may be all you require,’ she says. ‘But to get by in business, there’s so much more to be gained from actually listening to native speakers. Going on an intensive course or even spending some time in the country itself, you learn so much more by having real conversations. You’ll never be fluent without making the learning of the language your number one priority for the duration of your course. But it’s so worthwhile.’

Complacency amongst the Locals

Nesi Davies believes managers rely too much on ‘Johnny Foreigner’ being forced to speak English, a situation that is dangerous for businesses in general. She says, ‘When I speak Spanish to Spanish people, they are amazed to find an English person who can talk to them fluently. Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of Canadian people who can speak Spanish well – but there are so many more Spanish people who can speak English.’

Rene Ranti agrees. In fact, she believes that, even if your hosts speak to you in English, there are tremendous benefits in ‘having a go’. ‘What colleagues and clients find frustrating is that English speaking people don’t even attempt to speak foreign languages – many of them won’t even bother with simple social niceties like hello and goodbye. Foreigners understandably get annoyed – after all, they have made the effort to master English at a high level, yet the people who want to do business with them can’t even muster up a simple please and thank you! I can’t understand that negative attitude. To me, it’s a brilliant way of building rapport. I’m learning Spanish now, and have spent some time at the end of last year working in Madrid. But because I knew that I’d be respected for trying, I had the confidence to speak to my customers in Spanish, even if I didn’t always get it right. They were able to help me out with certain things I wouldn’t have picked up from text books.’

Paul Williams, Director of operations, believes locals looking for jobs at home are facing competition from better qualified foreigners. Because of the ease in which workers can move, often they migrate to places which offer the best employment prospects, causing locals to compete with highly qualified foreign workers.  ‘In the past, language barriers and social inertia used to be obstacles but this is no longer the case,’ says Paul. ‘[Workers]… arrive on our shores in increasing numbers with high functional skills for their chosen work area and often a minimum of two fluent languages. They are also renowned for their proactive attitude towards work – they don’t feel the world owes them a living.’ Additionally, their salary expectations are usually decidedly lower than those of their local contemporaries – these are the sort of people who will always attract the eye of employers whatever the position in the economic cycle. ‘They are also definitely competitors to local talent seeking jobs for the first time and without any language ability other than English,’ continues Paul, ‘and with a lower cultural understanding beyond their own limited circles and with a pronounced viewpoint of monolingual arrogance.’

Misguided support from business

Rene Ranti says businesses could do more to encourage staff to speak the language of the people with whom they expect to do business. ‘Companies need to make a commitment that goes beyond just paying for a course though,’ she warns. ‘They need to recognise that people have to invest time to learn – there’s no use signing your best people up and then pulling them out of classes at the last minute so they can go to meetings.’

Another mistake companies make it is to bring in language trainers to train for, say, a couple of hours a day each week in the hope of churning out fluent linguists. Rene recalls a previous employer: ‘Our telesales team were being coached in French so that they could begin targeting French businesses. It was hopeless. They’d turn up late for the class, their minds full of the stresses and concerns of their day. Nobody could concentrate; people would be pulled out to take important sales calls, and inevitably, once they returned to their desks they just forgot what they’d been taught. It was a disaster.’

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to dispatch your most talented personnel off abroad on residential courses in order to boost their language skills. Specialist language firms have years of experience running corporate language and culture training courses, and will tailor their services to suit the needs of its business clients. Paul Williams says more and more businesses are recognising the need to train key personnel: ‘International corporations and small businesses alike can overcome language and cultural barriers to succeed in the global marketplace. Corporate courses range from individual instruction and group learning to intense, day-long training sessions, sustained over several weeks or months, where even during lunch you speak, hear and think in your new language, with native-fluent instructors. And cross-cultural training for individuals and their families helps prepare people for relocation.’

Minding your Ps and Qs

Local businessmen and women are most at a disadvantage in formal and informal gatherings with people from other countries. The importance of cultural understanding, as well as business and social etiquette, cannot be overestimated. ‘In some ways, knowing local customs is more essential than the language,’ claims Nesi Davies. ‘People can accept you not necessarily knowing their language – but how they behave in certain situations is so second nature that the idea of anyone else not acting the same way is incredible. And what may seem like normal behaviour to you can be a massive affront to them.’

Mark McCarthy, a financial controller, was sent on secondment to Japan, and underwent an intensive ‘culture awareness’ course. ‘One of the things I found odd was that in Japan, when a businessman says no to you, it invariably means yes – he just wants you to work a little harder! The Japanese don’t warm to you immediately, they like to think you’re making the effort to get to know them before they’ll consider negotiating with you. Their work culture and set of ethics and etiquettes are tremendously complex – you absolutely have to have some schooling before you try to do business with them.’

The culture trap can work in reverse too – if you show astonishment (or worse, hostility) at your hosts’ behaviour, offence can be taken. Kelly Gordon, a communications director for a professional institute, travels a lot to Kuwait and the Gulf states. Now a veteran of handling local idiosyncrasies, at first she found Arab ways strange. ‘I was invited to a meeting with a group of local businessmen, and was intimidated to be told it would be an exception to have such a high level meeting with a woman. What I wasn’t prepared for was that they wouldn’t shake hands with me because I was female. A few of them offered me their elbows, which completely threw me – I didn’t know whether my own elbow should be offered in return or whether I should use my hand. The last one to be introduced to me was a minor Royal, and he just waved my hand away altogether. It was tricky to settle down after that, and particularly hard not to take umbrage – but business had to be done. Nowadays, I take it all in my stride.’

Even understanding how your hosts behave can help. To North American eyes and ears, the arm-waving antics of some Europeans can seem excessive. According to Nesi Davies, you have to get used to it. ‘It’s not that they’re angry,’ she says, ‘They’re simply more expressive. If a Spanish or Italian client speaks loudly and waves his arms around, it’s not something to be frightened of. Nor should you feel obliged to shout back!’

Dividends for business

It almost goes without saying that learning a language means acquiring a new skill, which in turn boosts one’s ‘saleability’ to employers. In today’s labour market, companies cannot afford to lose sight of this. In fact, they can turn it to their advantage – workers who need cajoling to learn a new language may only need to be reminded of how they will benefit before they are clamouring for lessons. Tina Latchford, who runs her own recruitment and training firm, says the sales consultants who show willingness to learn basic language skills are the ones who get to go on trips to places like Paris or Rome or Brussels. They get to enhance their cv and I get staff who are better ambassadors for my company.’

Paul Williams concludes, ‘Whether you’re making deals overseas, relocating employees or working alongside foreign speakers here, good language training can enable you to get past the barriers that for years have got in the way of local businesses.’

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