Bringing your language to work

Does language-love exclude us at work?
Does language-love exclude us at work?

Last week I attended a conference on workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). D&I practioners repeat the mantra that people are happiest and most productive when they can bring their “whole selves” to work. The concept of bringing the whole self implies that there is no part of one’s self that one has to leave at the door when they come to work. Most of the discussion of “whole selves” revolved around race, gender, and sexual orientation, namely, one can be at work according to one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, without shame, without hiding. We also discussed the topic of religion. D&I experts show that when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are happier and more productive, which hits the business’s bottom line in a positive way.

I noticed, however, that no one touched on a significant topic: linguistic inclusion. If people identify strongly with a language besides English, are they allowed to bring their whole self to work? I was amazed that the conference never addressed the issue of language even when the opportunity arose. I naturally put on my “loving language” hat and started asking around. I saw the problem clearly, but I’m still looking for an answer.

Language discrimination

This is a real issue. I met one man at the conference from Somalia who related to me about one place he worked. A monolingual English-speaking colleague of his said, “I don’t like Filipinos because they are always speaking their own language,” and added, “The same thing for Somalis.” Not only can one not bring one’s language to work, open disgust towards other languages is allowed.

Another woman I met works in health care. She said that in one hospital, Spanish-language interpreters are only allowed to speak Spanish on the job; during break they are told not to speak Spanish. Even those hired to speak another language are not allowed to bring their whole selves to work.

These are extreme cases, but I don’t know if they’re rare. In the US people can actively keep others from bringing their whole selves to work when those people identify with a language besides English. I don’t know if this is illegal; those discriminated against are often vulnerable immigrants and wouldn’t bring lawsuits.

In the vast majority of workplaces in the US, the only language spoken at work is English. Whether your native language is English or not, whether you speak English well or not, you will speak English at work and leave your other language(s) behind.

This means that if the whole self includes identification with a language besides or in addition to English, you cannot bring your whole self to work. Many workplaces do not accommodate other languages being spoken.

How will we communicate with each other, then?

Another gentleman responded to my questions by correctly asserting that people need a way to communicate at work. If everyone is speaking another language, it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect everyone to learn everyone else’s language. People do not need a single language for mutual communication, however. Hegemony of one language is not the only answer. Throughout human history, people mix languages and develop means of communication using multiple languages. For example, Singapore and India employ these multi-lingual means of communication today. A subset of a couple languages or a mix of languages have also been shown to function fine.

The problem only raises questions for me now; I don’t have an answer. Can we allow for a multiplicity of languages without turning into a Tower of Babel? Can we shift culture through force of will, or do we need to keep the system as it is? Our present culture shows that integration of gender and race and, more recently, sexual orientation, can work, though not without tension. How do we continue this trend to language? Or will it remain a tense subject, unspoken of in the workplace, like religion?

Do you see linguistic discrimination at your work? Is it justified in your workplace?

Photo credit: ROSS HONG KONG / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

American multilingualism?

Chinese-american man 1
Is he monolingual? (“Chinese-american man 1”; Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I heard a common joke once again today: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.  Not only does most of the world hold this view, but so do many Americans–an American was telling the joke this time.  Much of my blog targets the shortcomings of monolingual Americans confronting a multilingual world.  The stereotype of the monolingual American, surprisingly, does not hold for a large minority of the US population.

While Americans are known universally as adamant monolinguals, many know at least one language other than English.  Over 20% of American speak a language other than English at home.  Significantly, under 13% of Americans were not born in the US.  One can conclude that many of these “other language” speakers learned them in the US.  (Data come from the US census.)

I believe the numbers are actually higher, maybe closer to 25-30%, because I believe in the controversial idea that African-American Vernacular English is a distinct dialect/language from standard English.  Native speakers of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speak a distinct dialect of English that is not completely comprehensible to Standard American English speakers.  AAVE differs in phonology, syntax, morphology, and vocabulary–all the categories in which we find language variation.  Because these speakers have to be conversant in Standard American English, they must be bilingual.  If speakers of this dialect are only 5% of the US population (just an estimate: over 13% of the US population is black and over 2% are multi-racial and not all speakers of AAVE are black), then the proportion of Americans who know a foreign language fluently rises to at least one-fourth.

Yet monolingual Standard American English speakers judge these speakers of multiple languages by one question: How good is their (Standard) English?  Accented English is considered less “good” than “pure” Standard English.  The stigma spreads to those who work with these people; our society does not value those around us who speak multiple languages.  English as a second language teachers and hospital interpreters will never become rich.  Working in a bi-lingual world in the US means that you are working with poor, uneducated people.

I repeat: our society does not value those who speak multiple languages.  Americans’ focus on English ability prevents them from seeing the value of all the languages spoken around them.  The Mexican landscaper and Vietnamese nail salon worker are “uneducated,” “imperfect” speakers of English.  The co-worker or offshore helpdesk employees speaks “passible,” though “frustrating,” English.  The occasional multilingual international business-person will shine through, but he or she will not begin high up; the language skills are soft skills usually considered a “benefit” but not often “required” for the job.

If Americans want to become the next great power, they will need to operate in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural global marketplace, and they must value multilingual abilities.  We can see the value already in those who know another language.  Once you learn a language, the next comes more easily, especially if the next is related to a previous one.  For example, if one learns the Chinese language of Cantonese (the most widely-spoken Chinese language in the US), learning Mandarin will come much more easily.  Rather than spending thousands of dollars on Mandarin, one can learn Cantonese by eating more often at Chinese restaurants and interacting with you neighbors.

As Americans, we are surrounded by people with valuable skills.  Everyone who speaks with an accent, who struggles to converse in English, speaks another language.  They are the ones who will lead the majority of Americans who are monolingual into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce.

Companies need language ambassadors

A good ambassador is worth the expense
A good ambassador is worth the expense.

A company can display their genuine interest in international clients by showcasing the language abilities and cultural interests among their employees.  Clients enjoy connecting personally with people in your organization, so companies should present their most personal face by recruiting those with exceptional language skills and cultural intelligence.

I recently had the opportunity to help out with a delegation from Russia.  The company my friend works for had some potential clients come from Russia to take a tour of the local facility in Minnesota.  Although the company hired a professional interpreter, I was asked to accompany the delegation to a couple of dinners because I speak Russian.

After long days of tours and presentations, these conversations were relaxing for them.  We didn’t talk “shop”; we talked about life in Russia vs. Minnesota, such as traffic and prices and we learned a lot about one another.  They could talk in their native language about their culture and learn more about US and Minnesota culture.  Meals were not typical work-trip meals but time spent in pleasant company, relaxing and learning.

Towards the end of the visit, one of the Russians smiled and said, “How surprising that we come to the US and we keep finding people who speak Russian!”  My presence told these Russian potential customers that the company with whom they were thinking of partnering cared enough to connect with them in a substantial way and to surround them with an atmosphere that would be comfortable for them.

Significantly, these conversations took place with a “pure” American, so they could peer more directly into the cultural divide.  We have many immigrants from Russia in Minnesota; our interpreter was one.  I, however, was a complete outsider: fifth generation American, no Russian background.  I had no reason to learn Russian culture except out of personal interest.  They were intrigued.  Why did you learn Russian?  What do you think of Russian culture?  Tell us how Americans think!  My interest in people and their background, substantiated by work in learning languages, made a profound impression.

Ultimately, the Russian guests had a nice time and left with a great impression of the US and my friend’s company.  My affiliation with my friend’s company and my personal interest in Russian culture demonstrated that the company and our country are interested in these guests by going the extra mile to make a connection with these potential customers.

Companies in the US will attract more interest from foreign clients if they cultivate linguistic knowledge and cultural intelligence, whether by recruiting employees with these skills, finding existing employees who possess them, or training current employees in them.  My friend’s company made a wonderful impression on these potential customers by bringing me in, not because of me per se but because they made the effort to connect with the clients’ language and culture.  As the marketplace becomes more global, offering up culture and language ambassadors will provide an important edge to winning over clients.

What do you think are cost-effective ways that companies can prepare themselves to make great impressions on foreign clients?

Photo credit: / Public Domain Mark 1.0

What I learned about language-learning: 2012

Learning from 2012
Learning from 2012

I think that today is the perfect day to review my blog posts from the past year and summarize what I’ve learned about language-learning.  I hope that you have been learning along with me.  Overall, I found that learning languages improves my character, my professional life, and my community.  The process of learning languages teaches me how to set and achieve difficult goals.  Learning languages is not enough, though; I’m learning how to take language love out to my broader community.

Learning languages improves character.

When we learn languages, we train ourselves to think in new ways.  We become more creative and we move outside of our everyday thinking patterns.  As we advance, we talk to new people and take risks in looking silly–facing down immobilizing fears.  Understanding new people comes more easily, and we become more open-minded.  Confronting our fears and opening ourselves up to those who think differently from us forces us to grow and mature.

(See Moving out of Yourself through Language; Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity; Vulnerability and Weakness, Growth and Connection; Language Learning for Veterans; Languages: Failure is Gain; A Money-Mouth Situation; Language, fear, and childishness; Seek to understand rather than to be understood; You can learn a new skill!)

Learning languages improves professional success.

For those who work regularly with speakers of other languages, we can engage with them in more positive and constructive ways if we learn their language.  Though they may speak English, we show that we recognize the effort they constantly put forth to speak to us in a language that is foreign to them; we sympathize with them.  Moreover, we understand more deeply the needs and desires of our clients and customers because we have made the effort.  All of us will spend increasing amounts of time in the future with more non-native speakers of English, and the more we speak another language, the more quickly we will succeed in our dealings with those for whom English is not their native language.

(See Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?; Communication Problems Slow Business Growth; Learning Languages for Global Development; Languages, Marketing, and Customer Experience; Languages Benefit US Employees.)

Learning languages improves the lives of expat spouses.

As a corollary to the above lesson, I’ve found that the spouses of expats will experience a more positive, constructive transition if they learn the language of the country they go to.  They can benefit from this exciting adventure, teach their children, advance their career, and grow personally.  Ultimately, the company profits from spouses who have a good expat experience.

(See Relocation Succeeds with Training for Spouses of Expats; Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse; Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses.)

Learning languages offers social benefits.

As Americans we find ourselves in the contradictory position of being surrounded by multiple languages every day, yet understanding none of them.  Our communities are full of language resources that we do not seek to learn from.

At the same time, we Americans hear our news largely from American sources in English.  We lack access to differing points of view because we cannot understand the languages in which those views are formed.  If we sought to benefit from the languages of our fellow-Americans, we would understand the world in a more sensitive, nuanced way.

(See “We have a listening problem”; Learning Community Languages; Language Deficiency; فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!; To be American is to be multilingual; Learn Languages for a Different Take on the News.)

Setting goals is important, but one must continually evaluate what is most effective.

This year I decided to learn Farsi.  I wanted to see how much I could learn with the resources I could find, without going to the country.  I set out in the beginning with certain goals for listening, vocabulary, and interactions.

Examining what works always helps, but what works in one phase of learning or of life may or may not work in another phase.  I found some of my learning tasks easy and some of them impossible.  I kept up in some areas but not in others.  Sometimes I lost my “balance.”  I made some fast progress in vocabulary, then lost momentum.  I more recently learned the beauty and necessity of speaking to natives.  Moving and changing jobs radically altered my ability to study my language, but I am still striving to learn however I can.  I learned that setting goals is not the same as setting expectations–goals I aim for, but expectations hurt when I don’t get to them.  Ultimately, the notion “progress, not perfection” will ensure that I learn the language–though not necessarily as quickly as I may like.

(See Setting Goals: Why take on this task?; Stuff happens; Problem of Intermediate Language Learning; Farsi at Six Months; Progress and perseverance in learning languages; Just make progress!; Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe; Overcoming fear to end a slump; Don’t just practice–engage!)

Importance of teaching languages

Finding myself in a community filled with Somali immigrants, I want to develop a local team to figure out ways for us non-Somali Minnesotans to learn from our neighbors.  We need to figure out how to develop more language teachers here.  I want my kids to grow up knowing more than one language, preferably one they can speak every day.  Education will improve overall through greater language education.  I also want the Somalis at my work to teach me and my co-workers their language.  Knowing that learning and teaching languages takes a lot of time, I’m learning how to use lunch time for learning time.

(See Languages at Work; Community Languages in Schools; Team Language-Lover; Certifying immigrant language teachers.)

I hope that you have a happy new year!  I hope next year to enjoy all kinds of improvement in Farsi and Somali.  I want to teach more people how to improve their lives by learning languages in the situation where they find themselves, whether in the US or abroad.  I also hope to develop Somali education in local schools here.  I hope we all love languages even more in 2013!


Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse

Image by Ambro / Free image courtesy of

If you are the spouse of an expat, you bear two burdens that the expatriot does not. First, you are responsible for household tasks, especially helping the family to adjust as a whole. Second, while the expatriot travels overseas for the sake of his or her career, you might do so at the expense of your career. For example, if your company cannot provide a position overseas, your career may suffer from this perceived “loss of time.” You may have to return to a brand-new job search in the home country with the added blot of “unproductive time” on the resume. In this post I’m going to focus on the second burden, although it overlaps with the first.

A career spouse who learns the host language has hope. If you learn a language you will network more successfully, and finding a job overseas, just like finding one in the US, depends on networking. Beyond the immediate advantages of knowing the language in the host country, learning a language offers new skills that will help your job search upon returning to the US.

“How will I find a job there?”

Workers turn down overseas assignments because of their spouse’s career more than any other reason. Fewer spouses find jobs overseas than they used to, according to Tanya Mohn in this New York Times article. They are deciding wisely. According to the same New York Times article, 10% fewer expat spouses can find work in 2011 than in 2006. As the world economy slows, the situation will not likely change soon.

Many families depend on the spouse’s career for a second income and giving purpose to the spouse. Companies need to recognize this—though they often do not. As reported on the Expatica blog, Lisa Johnson, Cendant‘s director of consulting services, says that low-level workers–not executives–need more help in job search assistance because they are more often dual-income families. In addition to lack of income, lack of career for the spouse lowers overall family quality of life.

The company must take the happiness of the family of the expatriot seriously. Many families that go through with an overseas assignment may suffer because of a lack of job prospects for the spouse, leaving the spouse unhappy. This thesis by Huynh Ronny et al about expatriot management notes that spousal unhappiness represents the most common reason for early termination of overseas assignments (p. 19). Such a change of heart costs the company dearly. Mohn writes in the New York Times that a failed relocation can cost $1 million. The cost of not providing support for the spouse potentially exceeds the cost of providing support by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The language will let you network

One solution will allow you to network more effectively, whether for work, friendships, and other support systems. The company must provide for you to learn the local language early and seriously.

The spouse will need the language right away. Hyunh Ronny et al note in their research that the initial stage is most critical for training. Moreover, because the level of adjustment for the family is greater than for the worker, the family deserves a separate training module (pp. 19-20). The worker will be adjusting to his new work. His family will be adjusting to the new culture, including career networking.

Knowledge of the language helps the family confront multiple initial problems. Hyunh Ronny et al write that knowing the language gives the family access to local support structures–outside work and expat communities (p. 18). An article at CheeseWeb asserts that learning the language helps the spouse with the job search, integration into society, and day-to-day interactions

My experience has additional shown me that knowing the language will make you stand out in a positive way. When I visited Morocco, after one-and-a-half days, locals approached me to chat: “There’s the American who speaks Arabic!”  The language will get your foot in the door as someone who is smart, sympathetic, and unique. Language will open myriad channels for connection that will help with your career and personal life.

Beyond simply studying the languages, more serious study likely helps significantly. Researchers believe success of cultural training depends on level of rigor (ie, weeks-long field training). Nevertheless, individual businesses anecdotally find success with less rigor (p. 27.). Ultimately, more cultural awareness training keeps expats from thinking that the new culture is inferior to the expat’s (p. 28).

Gaining skills while overseas

So the above writers demonstrate how learning a language is essential in helping with the immediate problems of integrating into the host country and of finding a job, but they do not stress the importance of learning the language itself for your future job prospects. A language represents a concrete skill that you can put on future resumes. Moreover, learning a language improves communication skills even in the native language. You will gain the ability to see things from multiple points of view. This ability aids in most interpersonal interactions in any workplace. The language and added communication skills fill that dreaded hole in the resume. When you return, future employers will no longer see a gap in your record but an applicant with new hard and soft skills for job advancement.

Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses

Cross-cultural connection
(Photo by *** Harold R ***)

An expat assignment can derail a spouse’s career path making the whole family unhappy.  In a recent study described in this article, expat spouses have expressed that training to help their career during the expat assignment would have helped.  On the one hand, many spouses accompany the employee as a support.  The spouse runs the household and directs the education of the children.  On the other hand, other spouses have invested professional and emotional energy into a career they enjoy.  In an earlier post, I explained how language-training would help spouses of the former group.  Employers could do more to support spouses in the latter group.  Expat spouses desired employment assistance, and this article presented a few different areas of assistance.  Among the responses given, spouses most desired networking assistance.  Here I will present ways in which language-training lays the groundwork for networking, and so enables spouses hoping to continue–even enhance–their careers.

Networking requires the ability to make a good impression and carry on a pleasant conversation, and language plays an essential role in communicating.  Even if I speak mostly in English when I network, the fact that I try to speak and display my willingness to learn, I leave a great impression.  I spent a few days of my honeymoon in a small town in Morocco, called Laarache.  After I spoke to a few people in the local Arabic dialect, people approach me as the “guy who spoke Arabic.”  Networking happened without any effort for the next several days.

Communicating in the local language will help any career.  The above study showed that some spouses wanted to find a job, while others wanted to start a business.  You will need to network to find a job with an existing company.  Finding a job, though not easy, poses fewer problems than starting a business.  Entrepreneurship involves more paperwork and laws in some countries.  The bureaucracies of some countries baffle Americans.  Navigating these without a “native informant,” can end one’s hope to start a business.  When you can speak the language, you can speak more easily with government offices and more widely with locals who understand the process.  Often, knowing the rules does not help as much as knowing the individuals who enforce those rules.  In these cases, starting a business requires networking.

Companies who relocate employees, ought to provide training for their employees and their spouses that includes learning the local language.  Expats will make better, deeper, and more meaningful connections if they attempt to learn the local language.  These connections will help their career and personal fulfilment.  Spouses, whether they are functioning as support for an employee, or pursuing their own career, will flourish with this training.  Ultimately, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the company saves money if the expat family is happy and enjoying their overseas adventure.

Communication Problems Slow Business Growth

Culture Shock (TV series)
Culture Shock (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This report by The Economist illustrates how international managers view the importance of multi-lingual employees in the present and near future.  In sum, world executives recognize that international communication will make or break their business.  I would like to discuss two statistics from the summary of the report (I encourage you to read the entire report).

  • [Of 572 global executives surveyed] the overwhelming majority (bordering on 90%) believe that if cross-border communication were to improve at their company, then profit, revenue and market share would all improve as well. This is partly because potential opportunities in foreign countries are currently being spurned, with almost two-thirds of respondents saying that differences in language and culture make it difficult to gain a foothold in unfamiliar markets. (p. 4)

If businesses want to succeed in new markets, companies have to learn how to see the world and to express themselves through a new paradigm.  Every person sees the world through his or her own filter.  Business occurs when transactions take place among individuals, and each individual sees the world in through his or her cultural assumptions, and each expresses his or her interior world through language.  In all countries, executives are recognizing that profit, revenue, and market share are linked to cross-cultural communication.  These three categories represent the heartbeat of business health.  Companies can more easily learn to communicate on others’ terms than to force others to communicate on the companies’ terms.  As a result, the more nimbly businesses can adapt to these paradigms, the more successful their business will be; the less nimble they are, the more they will miss out.

  • Some 47% say their companies do not offer enough training to hone their employees’ language and communication skills, and 40% believe there is not enough emphasis placed on recruiting or selecting people who are suited to cross-cultural environments. (p. 4)

Many companies already consider language- and communication-training on the job as important.  The 47% statistic should be broken down into the 41% who say that they do not offer enough training, and the 6% who say that their training is negligible, since the 6% may believe that they do not need this training.  In any case, 41% believe they need more, revealing that these executives already assume that these types of training are important.  An additional 53% claim to offer adequate or more than enough training (p. 12).  The other statistic of 40% reveals that executives would like people who already possess this knowledge of other languages and cultures.

Executives loudly proclaim with these statements the need for employees to move nimbly across cultures and languages.  The difference lies in whether the company should supply training, in the first case, or should recruit workers who already possess this ability.

This survey expresses the mindset of executives across the globe; the US is a special case.  In many countries, the executives probably envision English as the language people need to know.  So perhaps one would guess that the US does not suffer from these communications problems.  This would be a wrong guess.  Another statistic illustrates that more US executives (55%) than Nordic ones (36%) found that language and customs hamper their plans for global expansion.

US companies, then, should be investing more resources into language and culture training.  US education does not emphasize these skills like the Nordic education.  What are some innovative ways that US companies could fill this gap?