Multilingual Challenges in the Workplace

Multilingual Challenges in the Workplace


In an era of globalization, companies are reaching across international borders and establishing local presences to increase business – enabling access to larger and more specified markets, more populous talent pools and support across geographic locations and time zones. But global expansion is only one step in a series of challenges – closely followed, or (ideally) preceded, by the cultivation of multilingual and cross-cultural competencies necessary for successful integration.

By 2030, the global labor force is expected to reach 3.5 billion – but multinational companies will still be facing a shortage of skilled workers. To continue attracting top talent these companies will likely need to adopt a global work orientation – increasing location-based flexibility, redesigning employee training strategies and strengthening company culture.

As global expansion introduces diverse languages to traditionally monolingual organizations, multinational companies are experiencing a series of positive and negative effects. For many companies, multilingual team members represent potential to build stronger relationships and assure more accurate translation services – and studies point to the benefits of employing bilingual individuals, citing superior concentration, more efficient multitasking skills and improved executive functioning.

Effective communication is arguably complex for any company. According to a 2017 Gallup report, only 33% of U.S. employees are engaged at work, which can be attributed (in no small part) to a lack of intentionality in company communications strategies. For multilingual companies, communications strategies become infinitely more important in addressing language and culture barriers.

Language is Multi-Dimensional

It would be difficult to discuss multilingual workplace challenges without addressing the term language barrier – defined as “a barrier to communication between people who are unable to speak a common language.” In the context of multinational and multilingual companies, references to The Language Barrier often seem to place disproportionate weight on social language – neglecting the less tangible qualities of language.

At its most basic definition, language is a means of human communication – but more so, it is a constantly evolving, context-specific mode of conveyance. To fully address and acknowledge the complications, solutions and potential growth associated with multilingualism in the workplace, we must consider the layers that make up every organization’s unique language. For example, social language encompasses the everyday writing and speech necessary for effective communication. But we must also consider professional language, industry language, technical language – and company speak (think acronyms, internal software, proprietary technology and more) that employees must learn in order to succeed at an organization.

When companies implement a “common language,” this implementation is often single-dimensional – facilitating social language, but often failing to address other key components. Viewing a multilingual language barrier as a single-dimensional issue neglects the very nature of language – and creates a multitude of problems for companies seeking a simple solution to a complex dilemma.

English as a Lingua Franca

Despite ranking third in number of global speakers, English has become a lingua franca – or common language – for international business. As of 2017, approximately 1.5 billion individuals spoke English – adding up to nearly 20% of the world’s population. The interesting thing? Less than 400 million of those English speakers learned English as their first language – making English the most commonly studied foreign language. By 2020, these numbers are expected to double – with non-native English speakers numbering upwards of 3 billion.

Implementing English as a common corporate language can be extremely beneficial – streamlining organizational communication, establishing proficiency standards for incoming employees, broadening accessible markets and ensuring calls, meetings and email chains are in a universally comprehensible language.

What are the risks?

To better understand the challenges associated with implementing a common corporate language, let’s imagine an English-only workplace with offices in several countries where English is not the native language. At this workplace, hiring managers have the potential to evaluate candidates with a disproportionate emphasis placed on English proficiency. If this bias is not addressed preemptively, this manager could pass over more qualified candidates in favor of more proficient English speakers.

Once hired, employees with lower levels of English proficiency might be less willing to share ideas, regardless of technical skill and leadership qualities – resulting in a loss of innovation and decreased employee engagement. Integrating language courses into company benefits offerings and further learning opportunities are cost-effective ways for companies to continue to recruit top talent, while ensuring that employees have the level of language proficiency necessary to succeed.

Language courses and training represent a long-term investment in employees, leading to better retention and improved productivity. Translating relevant documents is also an extremely valuable resource for non-native English speakers – ensuring that every employee is prepared to address potential safety concerns at a moment’s notice.

Adopting a common corporate language has potential to solve many issues arising from language-related workplace conflict, but truly overcoming these barriers to reach mutual understanding requires an effective – and intentional – communication strategy.

A Common Language For Addressing Safety

In 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), estimated that the language barrier contributed to 25% of job-related accidents – meaning that, particularly for environmental, health and safety (EHS) professionals, the language barrier poses a very tangible threat to worker welling.

Providing health and safety tools in a language employees can understand is the first step in preventing avoidable workplace injuries and illnesses. For companies with locations in linguistically diverse regions, deploying a digitized compliance management system with multilingual capabilities can offer comprehensive EHS support in languages employees can truly engage with. When evaluating compliance management solutions providers, companies should consider three factors:

  1. Multilingual Capacity

Whether a company is seeking multilingual support for two languages, ten or fifteen, it’s important to note that multilingual capabilities go far beyond translating words on a page – or application. Truly effective multilingual programs partner with translation services to combine a depth of industry knowledge with linguistic expertise – ensuring that context, workflows and best practices are taken into account.

  1. Training & Support

Local language support enables companies to learn a new software inside-and-out from Day 1, maximizing employee engagement and buy-in by establishing in-person relationships and integrating training and support processes into company culture across a global team.

  1. Scale

When choosing an EHS software provider, companies can reduce future costs by thinking ahead. Many vendors require companies to foot the bill for individual translations – but choosing a provider with the capability to scale and add languages empowers companies to grow without worrying about compliance.

Although English may act as a common language for many companies, it is far from universal. In the EHS and compliance industry, comprehensive, easy-to-use solutions are necessary to keep workplaces healthy and safe. Gensuite offers translations in 18+ languages, for 30+ applications – enabling companies in 100+ countries to achieve health, safety and security management excellence today.

In addition to implementing a digital framework for multilingual support, establishing clear safety expectations and educating employees are key steps in developing a safety culture for an organization, across geographic and linguistic borders.

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