Why language skills are critical in the new digital normal
With much of the world working, learning and socializing remotely, it makes sense that people and organizations are doubling down on improving tech skills. Due to COVID lockdowns, we’ve all been scrambling to be better acquainted with video- and audio-conferencing, content co-creation, file-sharing – essentially, ways of going about our professional and personal days, but digitally.
Companies are conducting rapid triages of digital learning offerings, and concerning themselves with understanding how to onboard a new employee remotely; how to train a large workforce to use new platforms that enable business continuity; how to restructure to account for less need for physical space, and what this new structure means for productivity.
We even hear from our customers that “Speexx is the New Normal.” for them these days. So, one thing organizations must not forget to invest time and resources on is language skills. In this new digital normal, language skills are more important than ever – here’s why.
Remote work means we must overcompensate with strong language skills
We lose context and nuance when we’re not having face-to-face conversations. Without someone’s facial expressions, body language or gestures, we might miss a message entirely – even one delivered to us in our own native tongue!
While we can’t prevent seeing where someone’s body is pointing (if we’re being spoken to but a colleague’s torso is turned away, it’s easy to deduce she wants to end the conversation), we’re best poised to understand one another by ensuring we speak the same language – literally, and fluently. This was true in an increasingly globalized world, even more so now with everyone working remotely and companies unlikely to open or keep physical office spaces.
Indeed, it’s possible that we’ll have more new colleagues joining our firms from other countries – with everyone virtual, there’s less of a need for people in-office. We can’t communicate effectively – and do business well – without having a common linguistic ground. And the more languages we all speak, the better.
Written language skills still dominate the workplace
Even in a world full of data and algorithms, writing is important! Text-based language skills still dominate the workplace. In the years and months leading up to the arrival of COVID-19, we relied on emails and instant messages for daily communication. But now, without the luxury of face-to-face conversations with colleagues in a physical workplace, we depend even more on written communication.
We all know that even a perfectly translated piece of content – tightened up with all the correct grammar, spelling and vocabulary – can be read and digested in many ways, based on syntax, context, nuance and more.
Without full mastery of a language, and deep knowledge of how said language might be understood, key takeaways from messages can be misinterpreted, or worse – potentially offensive, or altogether lost.
It’s crucial, then, that we get the message exactly right for communication to be effective and for business to run smoothly. We explore how to improve written communication in the workplace in a previous post.
Virtual classrooms are going to replace online learning
Before the pandemic hit, HR and L&D managers, as well as employees, didn’t think virtual classrooms were as crucial as actual, physical rooms. Online learning was seen as a nice-to-have, though a lot of corporate learning took place in workshops or sessions in within the office space itself.
Now, not only is it “safer” – even mandated, in some cases – for people to do their learning from home, but even massive, financially stable companies all over the world are getting rid of up to 30% of their physical office spaces.
Indeed, PricewaterhouseCoopers urges organizations to take stock of their real estate and consider remodeling existing offices to reduce office space needs. It simply doesn’t make sense to pay rent, electricity, and other costs for a location that no one is going to use.
This forces HR and L&D managers to rethink where people will do their learning.
The answer, as we know, is online.
So, how do strong language skills factor in here? With a massive shift from face-to-face to online learning, understanding is critical. There can be no miscommunication between a coach and user if he or she is to learn something effectively – whether it be learning Mandarin or Spanish, or memorizing unique selling propositions (if you’re an employee new to a company and doing your onboarding orientation), or understanding crucial new updates to GDPR laws.
Language skills can be attractive to stakeholders
Bigger and better opportunities can be seized – and problems more efficiently addressed – when individuals and teams can confidently and effectively engage with internal and external stakeholders of different cultures and nationalities.
Common languages between workers can foster stronger working relationships, thereby improving productivity and morale. Not to mention day-to-day, practical cost and time benefits to in-house learning capabilities through reduced reliance on external, freelance translators.
Speexx has offices scattered throughout the globe, and our workforce speaks (and writes!) more than 30 languages fluently. We know from experience how much time and costs can be saved without needing to depend on third-party translations.
Strong language skills ensure the message is delivered correctly
We know that even the difference between American and British English is vast. It’s not enough to do an accurate translation between one language to another; and throwing a ton of money at a translator is not only costly, but could still result in some of your key messages being lost – after all, third parties and external freelancers don’t know the ins and outs of your business the way that your own employees do.
Different cultures communicate in different ways, and humor that works in Italy might fall flat in Germany, even if a text in translated as perfectly and directly as possible. It’s important to have people who speak many languages also have firsthand knowledge and understanding of the cultures behind these languages to ensure that subtle nuance, even historical context and cultural sensitivity are all considered.
Language skills help general business skills
Countless studies tout the cognitive benefits of bi- or multilingualism, and demonstrate how speaking another language can positively affect one’s general business skills:
Stronger work relationships
As mentioned above, and as experienced at Speexx, language skills expose people to different cultures, behaviors and values. This is especially crucial if a business is doing cross-cultural and cross-border work. The more gaps that are bridged between cultures, the better chances are at successful, positive business.
This is related to making connections between cultures – recent studies show that bilingual children are better able to empathize with one another, or see the world from another’s point of view, than those who speak only one language. This is an attribute that allows people to relate to one another and perhaps in the future, to negotiate more successfully.
Research has shown that people make more logical decisions when they think in their second, “newer” language. It’s still unclear as to why this might be the case, but it’s thought to have something to do with the idea of psychological distance. Indeed, using a second or third language might allow your employee to be more rational and systemic rather than reactive and automatic in decision-making.
Yet another set of studies show people who speak multiple languages tend to be better at multi-tasking – no doubt due to the fact that switching between languages is a form of “mental exercise” and helps strengthen mental juggling skills. Those of us who have applied for jobs in the past know that the ability to multitask is a trait that hiring managers seek and value.
Discipline and resilience
Fluency doesn’t just come from talent or online courses. Learning a language is hard work; the motivation and desire to undertake a language course must come intrinsically from the individual, and this individual has to put in the time, effort and energy. Those who are sacrificing other activities and interests to dedicate an hour or more a day to learning a new language are, and continue to develop, discipline and focus.
Your employees need to feel confident working in whatever language they’re using at work. No one wants to feel like a child or inept when trying to communicate in a professional setting. It’s true that for many organizations, English is still the de facto language, and it might be wise to consider offering some English (or other) language courses to ensure everyone feels that they’re communicate as clearly as possible. Also, learning a language can be scary and might force some employees to step out of their comfort zones and stumble through some new pronunciations and grammatical concepts together; this can often throw the rest of their workdays into relief, allowing them to view upcoming work presentations or meetings they have in their native tongues as less “scary” or nerve-wracking.
Language skills strengthen communication
The reality is that employees won’t be returning to the same physical office space they left behind. The “new normal” moving forward means there’ll be fewer people at a given location, restricted collaboration areas and staggered shifts of office-goers – and to have all of this work with as little complication as possible requires clear, nearly perfect communication.
And pandemics aside – effective communication is at the heart of every business. We talk to customers, partners, vendors, colleagues and suppliers. Most organizations these days operate internationally, so communication is often multilingual. We’re quite used to this at Speexx, with offices in Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. And while English is broadly viewed as the lingua franca of business, we know firsthand that companies experience richer, more productive conversations with stakeholders across borders when we can effectively switch between languages.
Language skills make you stand out
Language is something that many English-speaking people and organizations have historically had a bit more of an arrogant, or relaxed, taken on. As mentioned a few times here, there’s been an “English is the de facto” attitude throughout the world in prior years – it’s been understood, however implicitly or explicitly, that in years gone by, if you want to do business, it had to be done in English.
This kind of expectation and convenience has led to a damaging complacency, and simply doesn’t work in an increasingly globalized world. Indeed, many organizations still do business in English, but proportions are far lower than they were even just a few years ago. Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Arabic, Italian and Russian are among the many languages frequently spoken in day to day business.
Your company will limit itself by not knowing and embracing various languages and cultures – especially at a time when there’s no need to “physically” do business in a given space anymore, and much of our work can be done in a digital world.
A vital role in opening up your business to the world
It’s not just about the ease of communication, either. Simply put, knowing and mastering a language means understanding a culture. For Speexx, the fact that the staff are multilingual has had a direct impact on our success with winning international work; as we have people from all over the world working for Speexx, on any given day we’re aware of current events that might affect our customers, partners and vendors, and can identify with their challenges, their ways of working, their priorities and how to best transfer messages and values from language to language.
More than anything else, communication is key, and Speexx is here to empower communication. Without strong language skills, communication will falter, and so will business.
But don’t be discouraged: Even if you’re not (yet) fluent in a second or third or fourth language, a few words or phrases can still go a long way. While trade shows might be a thing of the past, people are still connecting and collaborating in hybrid events or online, at digital conferences; other attendees have appreciated, and will always appreciate, someone’s effort at greeting others in another language (more so than being perfect or accurate).