Acclimate Your Expats with Foreign Language Training

By Dawn S. Onley Oct 23, 2014

Effective communication skills are a necessity to advance in the workplace, even if that workplace is in a foreign locale and the local language is not spoken by the employee.

As companies increasingly open up offices in international locations, they are shifting resources to staff those locations for work-related projects and assignments. An important determinant for success of these global assignments is whether an employee can effectively communicate and understand the local language.

Today’s employee has a lot of options to learn a new language, from one-on-one or classroom instruction to e-learning and self-guided programs, over a time period that includes pre-departure language training and also training post-arrival.

Matthew Chan, who is responsible for enterprise and education business at U.S. language-learning software company Rosetta Stone, said studies have shown that the longer an employer helps an employee prepare for an overseas position, the better acclimated that employee will be to the language and the more confident he or she will be in the assignment.

“As much as 75 percent of assignments have failed because employees were not adequately prepared. That’s a staggering number,” Chan said. “Companies are trying to figure out what causes the various failures. Sixty-one percent of the employees said the lack of local knowledge and culture was the biggest obstacle for their success.”

The company has a platform called the Rosetta Stone Language and Learning Suite, which includes four different solutions—ranging from beginner to customized—that cover over 30 languages. This approach is effective, Chan said, because multinational companies employ staff with various levels of language proficiencies, and the suite allows for a more layered and complete approach.

LingoLive is another e-learning program that teaches employees at multinational companies to learn to speak a foreign language. LingoLive connects a student to a live, native instructor for customized lessons via video conference.

“Heineken, one of our largest clients, has used LingoLive to train their professionals to learn to speak Spanish prior to, and during, international assignments in Central America,” said Tyler Muse, the company’s founder and executive director. “The length of training really depends on the starting level of the student and the desired end point, in terms of proficiency.”

Amy Gulati, HR business partner for Helios HR, a human capital and consulting firm based in Reston, Va., said her firm designs global mobility programs that are partly based on a client’s language and cultural training needs. She said the first step should be to test a person’s aptitude to learn a language, which could save an employer time and resources.

“There are organizations that have developed language aptitude tests, which test your ability to learn a language in general,” Gulati explained. “Having a test like that as a baseline can help you ferret out which employee” will have the greatest success in a foreign location, she added.

Gulati said choosing between a more intensive, one-on-one, daily classroom language training program or an e-learning program depends on the client and their specific needs. “It would be totally based on the need. A lot of our clients are government contractors. If someone is sending employees overseas, and they need to speak government level 4 in Farsi, that would require more intensive, one-on-one training,” she said.

Several experts agreed that many countries will give English speakers a pass if there is an earnest attempt at speaking and learning the foreign language. It is also common practice for many global companies to choose English as the official corporate language.

“I find personally that if you try to speak someone’s language or at least some portion of their language, you are making the effort one way and people make an effort toward you,” said Ed Hannibal, who manages the lead global mobility services practice at Mercer, an international human resources management consultant firm. “I don’t speak Spanish, but I speak enough Italian that I can get by with Spanish. It helps. I think the other part of it is, this is a personal relationship. It is not a transaction. It is important to try to find common ground. Language is part of that common ground.”

However accommodating the foreign business climate can be to native English speakers, assimilating into the day-to-day culture can prove challenging to the employee and his or her family members without at least an elementary grasp of the language. Depending on the language, it could take months or even years to become fluent.

Renato Beninatto speaks five languages and is the chief marketing officer for Moravia IT, a language translation company headquartered in Moravia, a region in the Czech Republic. Beninatto, a Brazilian, said he has gone to Moravia once a month for the past four years, usually staying a week at a time in an apartment that he owns, and he can barely speak Czech. He said his experience illustrates the difficulty in learning a language on short-term deployments when an employee does not get to practice more frequently.

“Czech is a very difficult language,” Beninatto said, adding that, because the official language of his company is English “if anyone in the room doesn’t speak any of the local languages, we default to English.”

Beninatto said he has always hired an interpreter for language barriers, following in the footsteps of his father, a former expat.

“You have situations where the role doesn’t require learning the language,” Beninatto explained. “My father never learned the local languages. He was the general director for a Brazilian bank and vice president for Europe, so he had 19 countries under his management. The official language for the bank was Portuguese. Whenever he had meetings with banking authorities in the local markets, he would bring an interpreter to help him. An interpreter can cost you between $300 and $1,000 a day, but it’s somebody that is well-trained who facilitates the communication between both parties. It’s a very good alternative for short-term deployments.”

Abigail Flanagan is senior director, global relocation services, for Paragon Relocation, where she leads a team of consultants who work directly with transferees and their families.

“However the training is delivered, it is important for companies to realize the value in this type of preparation for the assignee,” Flanagan said. “Being well-equipped to understand varied dialects and regional business terms along with more everyday language can provide an underlying sense of confidence that allows the assignee to function at a higher level in their new role in a shortened timeframe. Simply put, when an assignee understands and can communicate effectively, they are more successful in the role they were sent to do.”

Dawn S. Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Global HR page

Keep up with the latest Global HR news


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect