Mono-lingual habits of international business

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It seems counter intuitive, but many large global businesses are imposing English only work environments on international employees.

As old trade and economic power bases shift and the rise of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the MISTs (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey) continues, you would think it safe to assume that the language and culture of international business will also shift.

Then it isn't a great leap to think if Russian, Mandarin, Brazil-Portuguese and others are emerging as the languages international business then surely those with multi-language skills will thrive?

Business English versus the rest of the world

Research shows this is not necessarily the case, English is not only hanging on as the choice of global businesses but it is growing, and growing in an aggressive manner.

According to Tsedal Neeley, assistant professor in the Organisational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School, companies that don't adopt English as a standard for their entire organisation will, at some point, "experience some form of bottleneck."

"It depends on what the company does, but if you'll have members in different countries needing to collaborate -- whether it's to integrate technology platforms or cater to customers worldwide -- it will become more important that even middle managers and employees with international assignments will need a common language in order to interface with others."

Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Nokia, Renault, Samsung and Microsoft Beijing have all mandated English as their corporate language. In 2010, Japanese internet services company Rakuten made headlines when it announced it would become an English-only organisation, with all communication, verbal and email, in English.

Language influences to way we act

 As well as impacting on business processes there have also been claims that the use of English in business promotes different types of behaviour. Anne-Wil Harzing,Professor in International Management at Melbourne University, has conducted extensive research into international business language. 

Following a series of experiments with MBA students her team found that when students worked together in English, as apposed to Dutch, their behaviour was more aggressive and more competitive. 

Harzing does not conclude that English is a better language for international business. She stresses that companies operating globally should be aware and embrace cultural and behavioural difference – and language difference plays a major part in this strategy.

Think globally, speak locally

 In short, Harzing’s research highlights the harm done by the short-term and reductive approach to doing business internationally as practiced by those forcing English only policies on employees. She concludes that a more beneficial approach would be to encourage bi or multilingual practice at all levels within global organisations.

When people learn another language, they also learn a new way of looking at the world. So, when bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. Knowing different languages opens doors to different cultures, other people and other points of view.

 Bilingualism has many more benefits than just knowing 2 languages. The mental gymnastics needed to constantly manage two or more linguistic systems increases cognitive flexibility and makes learning of all kinds easier.

Because the structures and ideas of two or more languages are quite different, bilinguals have to think in more complicated ways and therefore develop a more sophisticated view not only of language, but also the culture that comes from that. 

Bilinguals have also been shown to have better memories, better concentration, better non-verbal reasoning and be better at multi-tasking.

This is a powerful toolbox, and exactly what one needs to succeed in a fast-changing, increasingly internationalised world.

As the American psycholinguist Frank Smith said, ‘One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.’

Language and cultural training for international businesses

International House London provides tailor-made language and cultural training, delivered in your company at times to suit you.

Our native-level speaking trainers can deliver lessons in your office or at our executive training centre in Covent Garden, central London. We can work with you to provide your perfect language and cultural training solution.