Every one of us does the same thing before we leave our home each day: we check we have everything with us – keys, money and coat..When an employee goes on an international assignment, the relocation management company usually gives them a helpful checklist to ensure they have everything they need, from visas and customs declarations to keys and money.
The ingredients of a successful assignment
The employer too will ensure that their latest assignee has everything they need to do the job: desk, laptop, induction plan – and of course, they’ve already checked the assignee has the technical skills. These are the basic ingredients of a successful international assignment.
However, to continue the baking analogy, the assignment cake sometimes fails to rise as expected – there’s often an important ingredient missing: language training. It is the seasoning that many assignees, and their families, decide is not completely necessary.
But in the same way you notice that you’ve left salt out of your bread dough, an assignment cannot be completely successful without some level of the local language.
Language training – it’s good for you
For many years, psychologists have recognized the value of learning a second language (for example, this study from 1993); the Daily Telegraph gives seven concrete benefits of learning a second language:
- Improved memory
- Increased perceptiveness
- More rational decision-making
- Improvement in native language speaking
- Increased brain functionality – intelligence and problem solving
- Greater multitasking skills
- Postponing symptoms of dementia in some cases
If these were the only benefits, even the most altruistic of organizations would be reluctant to invest in sponsoring language learning among assignees.
However, Global Mobility professionals who want to ensure successful international assignments also recognize that there are many professional benefits to learning languages too.
We focus here on the three most important:
- Adaptation, confidence and social skills
- Trust and team-building, employee experience
- Intercultural skills
Adaptation, confidence and social skills
Ernst and Young’s 2015 Global Mobility survey identifies many of the reasons that assignees return home early. In two-thirds of cases, a lack of adaptation to local conditions is a significant factor. The 2018 survey is even more explicit: an unhappy partner is behind 71% of prematurely terminated assignments.
More than half of early returns were due to substandard performance of the employee or lack of job satisfaction (51% and 50% respectively).
Social isolation is one of the main causes of depression and unhappiness. Learning the local language is an essential factor in addressing the lack of social interaction.
Even in the Netherlands, where 72% of the population is proficient in English, Dutch is essential to socialize, understand cultural nuances and fit in completely.
If you’re in the staff room or canteen, the ambient conversations will be in Dutch. If you go to a bar outside the center of town, Dutch will be the predominant language. Landlords and service staff will initiate conversations in Dutch, and only then in English.
And let’s not forget that English is not the native language of all expats – the percentage of Dutch people speaking French, Chinese, Tagalog (Philippines) or Marathi (Goa, India) is significantly lower.
People unable to communicate in the native language will be disadvantaged socially. This impacts on their confidence and on their ability to adapt psychologically to their new home. This means that employers have a duty of care to ensure that their assignees and their families have some knowledge of the local language.
Trust and team building, employee experience
It is not just social interaction that improves with language acquisition. Being engaged and feeling that you belong relies on interacting and communicating directly with your colleagues.
When you can drop in and out of conversations that are happening around you, you are aware of office politics as well as the official announcements. You aren’t just a formal part of the team, you become part of the informal team as well.
Understanding even the basics of the local language is a bonding moment. Your colleagues will appreciate your efforts, while they smile at your mistakes.
When you hear your name in a conversation without knowledge of the language, you can become paranoid. When a group of people near you speaking in a language you don’t understand laugh, it is easy to assume you are the object of their amusement.
This bonding is a two-way benefit: not only does the assignee feel they belong, but the local teams begin to see them as a colleague rather than an imposter.
Rather than a “them and us” mentality, the host colleagues treat their colleague more as “us” – they welcome the assignee into the group.
The assignee ceases to be a short-term measure by the “big bosses,” and becomes a proper team member who adds value at a local level. This improves the employee experience for both assignee and local. The organization not only benefits from a successful international assignment, but it also gains a more motivated, more trusting team.
Intercultural skills indisputably are central to the success of an international venture. In fact, international business relies on the ability to communicate interculturally. However, intercultural communication is founded on having a common language. Language skills and intercultural skills go hand in hand, one feeding the other.
Organizations often choose intercultural skills as a quick fix; however, the long-term solution is intercultural skills learned as part of language learning.
There is a shift in the understanding of cultural theory that is focusing on privilege rather than national groupings. Native English speakers dominate through their privilege of birth and education in English.
By encouraging assignees to learn local languages, organizations show that they are committed to equality of communication, transparent in a desire to build inclusivity and prepared to enact their corporate values.
English is the accepted common language of business, but it is an imperfect tool that needs the support of other languages to ensure successful international assignments for the assignee, the host country and the whole organization. It is obvious the benefit of finding adequate language and intercultural training for assignees and the gains are felt all-round.