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Language Training Speaks to Improved Business Results

A book with headphones and a notebook on top of a world map.
This is the first in a series of articles about training and developing employees. This article examines the impact of foreign-language training on employees' professional and personal growth—even for those who are not preparing for an international assignment—and on the organization.

Language training for employees isn't just for expatriates anymore. Having workers who can speak and work in non-native tongues is important to organizations competing in an increasingly global economy, whether that involves attorneys dealing with international clients or a hotel's custodial staff interacting with guests. 

Findings from Best in Class: How Enterprises Succeed with Language-Learning Programs are based on a survey of 214 executives from around the world. Forbes Insights conducted the survey in conjunction with Rosetta Stone—a company that offers courses in more than 30 languages—to find out how leading companies are training employees to speak and work in other languages and the impact it is having at an individual and organizational level.

Around the world, English, German, Spanish and French are the four languages most often taught in the corporate environment, the report found.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Understanding Workplace Cultures Globally]

Law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, with about 70 lawyers and 150 staff members in New York City, offers a personal and professional development program. Some employees have used it to study a second language, like attorney Gina Piazza, a third-generation Italian American who didn't learn Italian while growing up. Piazza studied Italian after law school and lived briefly in Italy but wanted to improve her written and spoken legalese in that language.

At Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, she works with clients at Italian parent companies and with Italian clients that have U.S. operations.

"I was dealing with clients who expected a certain level of professionalism" in her language skills, she told SHRM Online. The firm pays for classes and accommodates employees' schedules for the training. Piazza had one-on-one tutoring for an hour every week for a year, with homework, to bolster her language skills. The firm also has "Italian Thursdays" when all the partners on the firm's Italian desk speak to one another only in that language for the day.

Programs that promote professional and personal growth improve morale, according to Alan Tarter, the firm's managing partner.

"If you create an atmosphere of learning, it's going to result in a good, engaged culture. If this is something [employees want to do], they'll have a feeling that the firm is invested in them."

The cost can vary, depending on the type of training, which can range from inexpensive language applications on mobile devices, to language programs and classes, to personal coaching. The key to a successful language program is customizing it to the individual's need and making participation voluntary, Tarter said.

"A lot goes into learning a language, and you really want to do this … with people who are motivated to succeed," he advised. An employee who supervises his firm's office services, for example, learned Spanish so she could better communicate with the Hispanic vendors the company used.

How training is offered will depend on the company's goals, Piazza noted. The organization should consider who its clients or vendors are, what languages it wants employees to learn, and how proficient employees should become in those languages.

At trivago, an online global hotel research company, two-thirds of employees come from more than 50 countries. Trivago provides in-house German instructors at its Düsseldorf, Germany-based headquarters and Spanish language instructors at its Mallorca, Spain, office.

"The language courses add immense value to our melting pot culture," said Anitta Krishan, the company's organizational lead, in an e-mail.

Bianca Delbao took German classes after moving from Australia to the company's German office.

"It really helps you feel completely comfortable living here and just makes life a lot easier and a lot happier being able to communicate with people outside of the workplace," Delbao told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

The company piloted its program in 2014; today it offers more than 10 courses a week that are taught by full-time language instructors. The courses are optional, and the company's talent and organization department oversees the training. The training aligns with "fanatic learning," one of the company's core values, and is designed to ease employees' integration into a new country, Krishan said.

More senior executives would align language training with their company's goals if they understood the benefits, such as being better able to compete in a global, multicultural world, said Bruce Rogers, chief insights officer at Forbes. The Forbes report found that 59 percent of managers said that when employees participate in a language program, the biggest impact is on improved customer feedback.

Support from senior management is essential to a successful training program, according to the report.

"A company has to do more than offer language learning," said John Hass, Rosetta Stone CEO, in the report. "They have to communicate to employees that the training is important. And employees have to understand why management is implementing the program and what they believe can be achieved."

More employee participation in meetings and less confusion when communicating through e-mail are among the benefits of language training, said Anna N. Schlegel, senior director of globalization and information engineering at NetApp. The company, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., creates storage and data management solutions and has customers in 150 countries. Schlegel oversees a team in 17 countries.

While NetApp does not offer employee language classes, it supports individualized learning and pays for one-on-one language tutoring and classes on how to give presentations in English, she told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

"Language training is one of the things you can do to tighten understanding" among employees, Schlegel said.

"For some organizations, it's clearly a mandate" to learn another language, Forbes' Rogers told SHRM Online. "You need a strategy that connects learning to measurement. Are people engaging in the program in a significant way? How are you measuring how employees are using the new tools" to learn a language?

Rogers noted that the report found a "significant increase" in language training for employees in the hospitality industry. One global hotel chain, for example, requires its custodial employees to achieve certain language goals to advance at the company.

Language training is often focused on employees in an organization's customer service, marketing, sales, and technology departments, said Shari Hofer, Rosetta Stone's vice president of marketing. However, banking and financial services companies are turning to language training as those businesses become more global, and she said it will become more important for organizations in the health and safety sectors to have bilingual employees so these businesses can better communicate with a growing Hispanic population, such as in the U.S.

"We see a great benefit when [language training] is part of the employee's growth or the plan is aligned to a business goal," Hofer said.

The second article in this series on organizational and employee learning explores training strategies for deskless workers, who often are overlooked when it comes to professional development.

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