Multinational companies face the growing challenge of facilitating efficient and pleasant communication among staff members that may have different mother tongues. While English often serves as a default “bridge” between employees with other native languages, it is far from a perfect solution. How much of what may be lost in translation is actually impacting employee engagement?
An article in Psychology Today - about misunderstanding in the multilingual workplace - highlights some of the problems that can arise. Employees were sent messages offering “conjugations” for a job well done rather than “congratulations.” The article notes that homonyms can also be a problem: “Precedents” may sound like “presidents” but citing the latter will not strengthen your case.
If you are building a world-class company and trying to create a best place to work, multilingual support should be high on your priority list. Here are some constructive tips and real-world best practices to help your team get on the same linguistic page.
Best Practices for Multilingual Fluency
Seek out multilingual staff. Give language skills a high priority in your recruitment and hiring practices. If you have offices where different languages predominate, try to hire staffers who excel in at least two languages, and ideally three (or more).
1. Encourage language learning. Whether you are a senior manager or a recruit, it’s easier than ever to learn or strengthen your language skills, either in your own time or as part of a company-supported language program. Many companies have language improvement programs, either in-house or externally, providing subsidies or time for employees to attend courses.
2. Treat language skills as a business asset. Having employees who speak additional languages can strengthen your bottom line. Expertise in a specific language can help open foreign markets and augment your customer service and sales efforts. Staff with language skills can be tasked outside their main job focus to support linguistic assignments like cold-calling, translation, editing, or proofing. The use of native speakers is great for quality assurance, especially in assuring that screen prompts and error messages of software or mobile app translation are correct and natural sounding.
3. Use language difference to increase employee engagement. Employees with a different native language usually love to teach others some phrases from their native tongue. Set aside one day a week where staff with different language eat their lunch together and teach each other food-related expressions. Or, in a team-building activity, let staffers from different backgrounds do a stand-up routine using their languages and cultures. Play a game where employees with different languages need to guess the meaning of a non-offensive slang expression.
4. Localization means more than just translation. Localizing your company’s products and services means more than just translating your marketing collateral and technical documentation into a new language. Localization also means relating to the target market’s cultural, aesthetic, and even ethical norms, adapting your offerings so they are sure not to offend and so they appeal to the tastes and standards of the local market. Having native speakers and doing your homework can avoid problems and facilitate employee engagement.
5). Make non-English speakers feel included. Many multinational companies use English as the default “lingua franca.” Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes – an international translation and localization agency with offices throughout the world – notes that “while English is our default language, the company leverages the linguistic skills of its staff to translate its internal communications and to facilitate interactions on a daily basis with hundreds of freelance translators worldwide.” We also encourage celebration of holidays and personal days to be in the staff’s native tongues. So everyone feels welcome and appreciated in the language they feel most comfortable speaking.” When gathering feedback, offer clear translations of tools like employee engagement and satisfaction surveys, to ensure every employee is able to participate.
Use Translation and Localization Tools
English improvement. Software Tools can improve the grammar, punctuation and spelling. correctness and styling of English language document, both for native English speakers and those with another mother tongue. Grammarly and Whitesmoke offer a one-stop solution for language correction and improvement. Both are fee-based but you can give them a spin in a free trial.
Other products like ProWritingAid, which is available in both free and for-a-fee versions. Ginger markets itself as a proofreading tool, highlighting problem words and phrases and offering alternatives with a mouse click. Hemingway is a specialized linguistic styling app that places an emphasis on writing in the short direct sentences which are characteristic of the American author for which it is named.
Many language translation tools are designed for asynchronous communication. You optimize the original and then translate it. But that process isn’t practical for face to face communications. There you need the ability to immediately communicate. The more advanced of these tools use voice-to-text translation so that speakers can speak in the language where they feel comfortable and the software translates their words into the language of their interlocutor.
The result is an updating transcript from both sides that may not be perfect (due to the limitations of voice recognition) but create a “good enough” common ground that can facilitate understanding. Examples of these tools include Microsoft Translator, Google Translator, and Tabletop translator. These let you use a tablet or smartphone to translate both sides of a dialogue. Keep in mind that some of these tools work only online.
The Last Word on the Multilingual Workplace
A study by sociolinguist Georges Lüdi and colleagues, cited in Psychology Today, reports that even in multilingual companies which use English as lingua franca, employees use their native language for both formal and informal tasks. The researchers make the case that constraining communication to English may lead to the loss of valuable nuance, reduce creativity and lead to emotional distancing of individuals unable to use their own language. On the other hand, if you encourage linguistic learning and sharing as a means of engagement, different native languages will be celebrated, not deprecated. The bottom line is that multilingualism and cultural diversity are assets which should be cultivated, not constrained.