International Business Communications – What Lingo?
Deciding how to handle your international business communications within your company can be tricky. Should you use one corporate language when communicating with your global team? Is English as a lingua franca good enough? Here’s what you need to know.
The Importance of Business Communications Within Global Companies
Employee engagement is an essential component of high-performing and happy workplaces. Whether you want to build an inclusive culture, share important updates or provide vital training, employee engagement is crucial. But getting employees to engage with company communications can be a struggle, particularly if you have a multilingual workforce.
If engagement and connection is your target destination, then the choice of language may be the shortcut to get there. Many companies, such as Honda, Sodexo and Siemens have adopted English as a lingua franca. After all, English is currently the most spoken language in the world.
Yet, opting for one language over another can be an overly simplistic approach. Choosing whether to use one corporate language for international business communications depends on several factors. Companies need to consider the size and composition of various teams, the nature of the work being done, company culture vs local culture and linguistic diversity within the team.
“We know that having a good company culture with engaged employees leads to happier employees, but employee engagement doesn’t happen automatically. We work for it.” — Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder at Globalization Partners, writing for Forbes.
In this blog, we examine why a one-language (‘lingua franca’) strategy isn’t always the best option for driving employee engagement.
The Pros and Cons of Using One Corporate Language
Okay, let’s start with the pros. There are clear benefits to using one corporate language in your organisation’s international business communications. It simplifies the process of communication and makes sure everyone is singing from the same sheet. It also reduces the need for translation and interpretation, minimises misunderstandings and facilitates seamless collaboration.
In most cases, if you are tempted to use a lingua franca it will be English. Even companies not based in English-speaking countries have been known to adopt English as their go-to. Japanese companies including Honda, Nissan and Shiseido use English as their corporate language. Since 2020, senior executives at Honda can only receive promotions if they pass competency tests to prove their English proficiency.
The disadvantages of using one corporate language
Whilst the benefits of establishing a single corporate language are clear, the disadvantages are more subtle but shouldn’t be overlooked.
Excluding those who don’t speak the language well — or at all
When you set one language for all, you run the risk of alienating those who don’t speak the language or aren’t confident in doing so.
Talented staff with ideas to share might become excluded due to lack of linguistic ability. You are judging them on language skills — which probably isn’t why they were hired!
Remember the fear of raising your hand in school? Staff who don’t feel confident speaking the lingua franca may stifle themselves in meetings. They might feel lost for words or be nervous of embarrassing themselves. This contradicts the ambition of one language fits all. Rather than simplifying communication and opening up conversations, it might silence them.
In setting a lingua franca you risk creating a power shift because people are chosen for roles due to their linguistic strengths rather than skills within a job role.
With a one-language strategy, it’s hard for recruiters to avoid putting undue bias on candidates who are already fluent in the lingua franca. It can lead to strong candidates being overlooked in favour of those who are better linguists. This could not only have an impact on levels of capability in certain markets, but will exaggerate the dominance of certain cultures and styles.
Cultural differences between colleagues
Sharing a single language for internal business communications across borders might provide a false sense of familiarity. However, speaking the same language doesn’t mean you have the same etiquette or communication style and even where there are minimal language barriers, there can be cultural differences. For example, in some countries, employees may passively wait for opportunities, while other nationalities favour a hustle culture and more obvious demonstrations of ambition.
Even when English as a lingua franca is used among some native speakers, such as the UK, USA and some European countries, you’ll find differences in communication style. For example, in the US over-confidence, directness and enthusiasm will open more doors for you than in the UK.
Linguistic differences between colleagues
Some people might also assume that anyone who speaks the same language will automatically understand each other. But some languages, such as Portuguese, French and German have vast differences depending on who’s speaking. For example, German is very different – in spelling, grammar, terminology and regional dialects – from Swiss German despite the proximity of the two countries. Similarly, European French and Canadian French also have differences in grammar, terminology and pronunciation.
Employees receiving comms or learning content in a non-native language may misinterpret or disregard it, having failed to recognise its importance. This can have dire consequences in the form of compliance failure and associated costs, injury and loss of life. The OHSA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) has estimated that the language barrier contributes to 25% of job-related accidents. Employees who feel unsafe are unlikely to feel engaged.
Read more about the pitfalls of lingua franca and how to avoid them in our guide: Creating internal communications that engage and connect in every language.
The Argument for a Hybrid Approach
If your organisation adopts a one-language strategy, we recommend taking a hybrid approach. This would include translating key internal communications into other languages for your wider workforce. Doing so will put you in good company. IBM has a lingua franca, whilst recognising eight other languages as important to serving local markets.
To ensure your critical messages reach your workforce undiluted, we recommend translating newsletters, L&D materials (e.g. digital learning content) and compliance-related information.
If you’re interested in using language to improve employee engagement, you’ll find the content of our webinar ‘Engaging with a global workforce and the impact of language’ useful. It explores, in more detail, the role of language in engaging a global workforce.
We love sharing our knowledge and expertise on this, and many other language, culture, translation, and localisation-related subjects. Please do get in touch, our friendly team is always very happy to help.
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