As more businesses expand into international markets, employees’ ability to communicate in multiple languages has become an important business strategy, one that many companies are embracing as a crucial talent management initiative for retaining and developing international assignees.
But corporate-funded foreign language training for global employees is expensive, costing employers up to $6,500 per employee for one-on-one immersion programs, according to Carol Joy, the global mobility manager at manufacturer Moog Inc. In addition to their high cost, foreign language immersion programs can be time consuming, with some programs for international employees lasting eight hours a day for more than two months, Joy said. This has led many businesses to wonder if foreign language training is worth it.
More than half of international companies’ revenues were generated outside their home country last year, a record high, according to a 2012 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services, an industry research firm. The increase in international assignments underscores the need for employee foreign language training, said Bettina Anagnostopoulos, a regional manager of the strategic language solutions for Cartus Intercultural and Language Solutions, a global workforce development consultancy.
“Language training for employees ensures they have the skills and the confidence to effectively execute their assignment,” Anagnostopoulos said. “Having the ability to speak the local language allows families to adjust to life in the new country, reducing the chances for a failed assignment. Having the communication skills to function independently gives assignees a sense of freedom and accomplishment that allows them to mentally adjust to the new location as home.”
The most common reason an international employee will leave his or her assignment early is because of a family’s inability to adjust to a new cultural setting, according to the survey, and many employers may feel compelled to use foreign language training to help an employee’s spouse and children successfully transition into a new culture.
For employees who are stationed in countries where English is the primary business language, however, employers may not need to offer as much foreign language training.
Moog, for example, offers employees assigned to its manufacturing center in the Philippines a Rosetta Stone language-learning software package, costing the company a total of about $500 to $800 per employee, according to Joy.
Since most of the employees at Moog’s location in the Philippines speak English, the need to master a foreign language is not as pertinent, making the one-on-one immersion program unnecessary. “We find the language training varies a great bit depending on the location that businesses go to,” Joy said. “We’ve seen a shift and a decrease in the high-priced language training.”
Moreover, as more businesses go global, managers have less time to train employees assigned to international locations. This, coupled with the increase of primarily English-speaking international businesses, has made one-on-one foreign language training less of an immediate necessity in the minds of employers, Joy said.
“We have seen it drop off over the past 10 years over being a strong, important consideration to becoming less of a demand,” she said. “We no longer have a three- to six-month period prior to an assignment starting — now it’s six to eight weeks.”
Beyond reducing the number of failed international assignments — ultimately saving a company money on developing new talent — foreign language training can help improve the way an international business communicates. Language is a significant cultural barrier, and an international assignee’s effort to gain specific language skills will provide more opportunities for local interactions while avoiding a perceived lack of respect for the culture, Cartus’ Anagnostopoulos said.
But foreign language training isn’t merely used to help international employees learn a second language. For example, some employers train international assignees to navigate different accents, idiomatic languages, regional dialects and differences among communication norms and traditions.
“What global talent managers need to be aware of is that even the most talented employees who are effective English communicators in their own areas of expertise still experience language barriers when they are expected to take their English skills to the next level in a new country,” Anagnostopoulos said.
To help develop a foreign assignee’s communication skills, companies should evaluate whether their relocation language policies are keeping up with the needs of assignees, said Amy Kampschroeder, director of product development and alliances at Cartus. Companies that link their talent management programs to their mobility programs tend to better prepare global assignees, allowing them to hit the ground running.
“In the past, language training for assignees was designed to develop survival language only in the local language,” Kampschroeder said. “Now assignees may need two languages to be effective. We need to look at what is required for effectiveness in the job.”
Employers that evaluate the needs of foreign assignees on a case-by-case basis can help identify potential communication gaps. From there, companies can tailor foreign language training to an employee’s needs, which can save a company money, time and resources.
“Language training for assignees crossing cultures allows them to realize their maximum potential based on their skills and expertise,” Kampschroeder said. “It unleashes the talent.”
Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.