Picture yourself as the owner of Bob’s Biscuits, a small company you started in the UK in 1986. It was purchased by a large Korean firm five years ago, and your famous biscuits are now manufactured in India. What language should your company speak and when?
For everyone to stay on the same page, your multinational and multilingual company should have a language policy.
Maybe it seems straightforward and writing it down might seem unnecessary. But putting pen to paper on a corporate language policy can enrich your company’s culture and make communication easier.
Let’s explore this from a few different angles.
How does your business communicate internally?
There are three different categories of language to think about:
- Parent company language: The language your founders speak (or spoke, depending on the age of your company). Your archives are full of documents written in this language.
- Corporate language: Your CEO primarily speaks this language, and so does pretty much everyone at head office. Most of your communications are done in this language as well. This could be the same or different from your parent company’s language.
- Local languages: Do you manufacture overseas? Handle call center tasks in Southeast Asia? These are the languages routinely spoken by your foreign-based employees.
Balancing these categories to create a concise and comprehensive language policy can be tricky, but each must be considered to make sure everyone in the company has access to all the information they need to help the company thrive.
Let’s examine the implications of incorporating all three categories into one coherent policy.
Corporate or Parent-Company Language Only
Let’s revisit the example of Bob’s Biscuits.
English is widely spoken in Korea and in India, so you might think the easiest solution is to operate exclusively in English. This isn’t an entirely bad idea.
Studies suggest non-native speakers communicate well with other non-native speakers because they develop their own distinct rules for speaking, collaboratively building the conversation using simple words and phrases that are more accessible to everyone.
So that should allow your employees in India and Korea to communicate with each other fairly well, right?
Not necessarily. You have no guarantee that your message is always coming through accurately. This can be troubling if you’re sending out important memos about policy changes, for example. As a result, you might need to institute language training for staff, which can be costly and time-consuming.
Additionally, by making head office the language authority, you’re cementing them in an even greater position of power. Your employees might feel less valuable based on their language proficiency. If you take it further and try to enforce a one-language policy in the workplace, you may even end up seriously damaging employee morale.
To be more diverse and inclusive, it’s better to take a multilingual approach.
Local Language Focused
Encouraging subsidiaries to operate in their local language can be very effective.
You’ll have better access to the local market for your product, for one thing. You also make the workplace a very comfortable place for your employees, and help your employees stay informed, especially if you produce eLearning or training materials in their language.
There are some drawbacks here too, though.
International partners visiting the site might need an interpreter, phone calls between offices might be challenging, and you might also feel that there’s a cultural disconnect between the different locations. You’ll also need a system for managing ongoing localization of HR documents and training programs that you distribute.
For Bob’s Biscuits, that means making sure all your assets are clearly translated to English, Korean, and Punjabi.
Employees around the world, however, are likely to appreciate the embracing of their native language into the organization’s culture.
Multilingual Company Language Policy
With this policy, you allow each office to operate primarily in the local language, while using a mixed-language management team made up of expats and locals.
In this setup, each local site’s native language is embraced while all efforts are made to ensure everyone is on the same page from the corporate level on down.
There are some interesting upsides to doing business this way. Within the culture of your organization, further trust is developed. When someone from outside arrives and makes honest attempts to speak your language, it’s a definite sign of good faith, which facilitates teamwork.
It also lets you keep your competitive advantage in the local market, while still allowing on-the-ground communication with head office.
The limitations of this strategy are in finding the right team members. It’s wonderful in theory to have multilingual employees, but it’s not easy to achieve in practice. You need to identify people who are willing to relocate and learn intensively.
Within the Bob’s Biscuits hierarchy, maybe someone from the Seoul office who already is proficient in English can take some Punjabi lessons and spend some time with the manufacturing group.
Other things to think about: Your local languages still play a major role, so you still need to manage translation on an ongoing basis. And you will also want to identify the primary language for official communication, just to make things as clear as possible.
Developing Your Company Language Policy: Steps to Follow
When you sit down to develop your own policy, you’ll probably find you need to incorporate elements of all three options, based on your needs.
For example, many large companies require English knowledge at their remote sites, but still translate corporate communications and trainings to local languages.
For any company–yes, even Bob’s Biscuits—there should be room for flexibility.
Whatever policy you choose, here are some basic guidelines:
1. Make your policy responsive
Analyze your business, find out how language is already being used, and implement something that respects the reality of the situation, while still creating adaptable guidelines and efficiencies.
2. Formalize you company language policy
Write your policy down and make it clear to everyone in your organization.
3. Identify your language assets
Maintain a list of the multilinguals in your organization and leverage them to make communication easier. Offer language training when you need to and allocate resources for translation when it’s appropriate.
4. Update your policy as needed
Revisit your policy periodically to make sure it still reflects the realities of your business.
We can help with your company language policy!
We are passionate about working with global partners with a need for practical innovation in multilingual communication and localization solutions.
We help companies to understand each other, connect, and prosper.
Contact Summa Linguae Technologies today to discover how a company language policy can benefit you, your employees, and even your customers.
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