The not-so-hidden costs of free and cheap language training
Business communication in your own language is a huge challenge for any business.
A Harvard Business Review study shows that 57% of employees feel that the basics of their daily job duties are often unclear. Another 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating basic, general information to their subordinates.
As a growing global business, you are faced with a host of truly unique communication challenges. Chief among them—especially as you grow into new and exciting global markets—is the challenge of language barriers among your workforce and customers. In fact, the majority of global organizations view language barriers as one of the main obstacles facing them as they expand internationally.
There is no shortage of language training solutions promising one or all of the following silver bullets. In fact, the language solutions industry is rapidly expanding. By 2021, the language services market will be a $45 billion industry.
But the lion’s share of these solutions often promise to magically remove every language learning pain point. Whether the promise is fluency, a painless learning experience, or “gamifying” language learning they all are making a promise no software solution can keep without downloading a language proficiency chip in each learner’s brain.
There is no shortcut to foreign language proficiency
Each aspect of your global operation rests on your ability to communicate essential information to your departments effectively. Ensuring this communication across global teams is a very complex problem to solve with a wide variety of costly business risks.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that communication barriers cost the average global organization more than $60 million in lost productivity every year. At this point, we’re only accounting for lost productivity. This doesn’t include more complex revenue losses associated with retention and missed business growth and optimization opportunities across your organization.
The “freemium” software model is alluring for obvious reasons. Yet, the overpromise of painless language training has other costly ramifications. The real-world challenge of corporate language training is that it does take time to develop speaking skills in a brand new language.
It’s easy to think: “If my employees could just learn the right words, our language challenges would all but evaporate.”
Learning a new language is more complex than just learning the translated equivalent of English words. When you’re talking about dealing with living, breathing human beings in your business and externally, you must have an understanding of what the words mean from a cultural standpoint.
The inherent risk of false cognates
For the uninitiated, a false cognate is a word in a foreign language that looks and sounds like a word in another language but has a completely different meeting.
Let’s look at a few common words in Spanish-language false cognates that may appear in the workplace to illustrate this concept:
To the untrained eye, this may seem like the Spanish equivalent of the word “embarrassed,” but in reality, it translates to “pregnant.”
This Spanish word seems like a slight variation of the English word, “Carpet,” but actually translates to “Folder.”
This may look and sound like the word “choke,” but in Spanish it actually translates as “to strike.”
What appears to clearly mean “to support” actually means “to put up with” or “tolerate.”
Again, it would be easy for a healthcare provider to read or hear this word as a Spanish word for “Injury.” In Spanish, it’s a lot less serious from a medical standpoint. It simply means to “insult” or “slander.”
Understanding key, cultural and language nuances is good for business
Without in-depth language training, it’s easy to miss key language and cultural nuances that can lead to confusion and frustration, or worse, business risk and safety liabilities that adversely impact your bottom line.
Many of today’s most popular language training solutions miss the mark by focusing on taking away the pain of learning, instead of equipping you and your employees to succeed.
The importance of immersive language training
Think back to any high school or college language learning experience. While flashcards and gamification were helpful in building a foundation of fluency, at some point, your instructor’s recommendation was total immersion. This often meant leaving your home country and moving to a place where you would be forced to practice with native speakers every single day.
According to the English Studies Institute, language immersion helps:
- Cement key vocabulary phrases and sounds into your memory.
- Learners think like a native speaker by observing and imitating speaking habits. Soon enough, your need to translate every phrase will stop and you pick up new words and phrases much quicker.
- You develop cross-cultural awareness. Language and culture are interconnected. Daily language immersion provides the cultural context for every word you speak in a new language.
No organization can or should attempt to integrate a language learning shortcut in its global business strategy, when so much is at stake.
Three ingredients of a corporate language barrier
So what is a language barrier and how can you tell it’s having an impact on your business?
In the foundational book Linguistic Auditing: A Guide to Identifying Foreign Language Communication Needs in Corporations, authors Colin Wright and Nigel Reeves define the three elements of a language barrier in a business environment.
1. Language diversity
How many regions does your business operate in? What languages are spoken in these languages—both internally across your teams and externally across your customer base?
2. Language penetration
How many employees and specific roles within your organization are engaged in cross-lingual communication? How comfortable are your employees engaging with a common tertiary language? These are all questions that help define how integrated your organization is with multiple languages as an organization. Obviously, your visibility into this information is a direct representation of a language barrier challenge.
3. Language sophistication
What level of speaking proficiency is required to do business well? Have you lost employees or customers as a result of a language barrier?
What to look for in a corporate language solution
Language proficiency assessments
While there are a handful of globally recognized proficiency assessments available, the most widely used is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale. Other common proficiency assessments include the Inter-agency Language Roundtable (ILR) and the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) assessment scales.
In very basic terms, the CEFR scale is an internationally-recognized language standard used to assess a learner’s language proficiency level. The diagram below lays out how proficiency levels are assigned, A1 being the most basic level of proficiency and C2 the most advanced level of speaking ability.
Reporting and learner progress tracking
Keeping your employees on an upward trajectory to meet your organization’s learning goals requires integrated dashboard reporting. With a free or cheap language training offering, your employees are only accountable to themselves. With centralized progress tracking, you can make key decisions to help your learners along on their language learning journey. You should be able to view, document, and analyze each learner’s progress, ensuring actionable insights into each employee’s learning progress.
Flexible, personal tutoring from native speakers
Perhaps the most challenging part of learning a new language is getting in enough quality practice time. Quality is the operative word here. Again, language training is about more than learning words in a new language, you must also understand the cultural context and how phrases are commonly used in real-life situations. This is why it’s essential to learn from certified native-speaking tutors.
Cross-platform learning environment
The proliferation of mobile technology enables modern professionals to work from virtually anywhere. Your employees stay on top of their daily tasks on a multitude of devices ranging from laptops to tablets to their own smartphones. A high-quality language training solution works seamlessly with your employees’ cross-platform productivity workflow—allowing your employees to learn at a pace, place, and time that fits their lifestyle, on their chosen device.
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