MARCH 3, 2020
Staff who are asked to work in the language develop new hierarchies based on fluency
Speaking at a conference in Dubai last week, I was struck by the ubiquity, confidence and fluency of non-native English speakers. Emiratis talked in English to Indians, Kazakhs to Egyptians.
I have written about the misunderstandings between native and non-native English speakers — and the non-natives’ relief when the born anglophones, with their incomprehensible phrasal verbs and figurative speech, are not there.
But what of the tens of millions of non-native speakers, whose daily conversations account for the majority of business conversations in English? Are they divided by levels of fluency and their striving for the best globally oriented jobs?
A recent study looked at what happened when a Chilean engineering company, the subsidiary of a US group, changed its corporate language from Spanish to English. The motivations were the usual ones: to become more global, to win non-Spanish speaking clients and to facilitate communications with the US corporate headquarters.
The company put an unusual effort into ensuring that everyone became competent in English, particularly given its small size. It hired three language specialists for its 60 staff and scheduled hours of lessons each week. The language specialists observed meetings and conference calls and ran workshops on functional vocabulary.
They rearranged seating to put fluent English speakers next to less advanced colleagues. They created glossaries for employees and posted English-language invoices and quality control documents on the company intranet. Six months after the change, the company ordered that all internal emails should be in English.
How did the staff fare? The researchers, Sebastian Reiche of Iese Business School and Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School, studied the employees’ progress for two years, looking at how attitudes to the language change affected learning progress and whether staff stayed with the company or left.
The change was an anxious one for many. A memo from the language experts noted that “employees expressed dissatisfaction, anger, frustration and fear of making mistakes as people attempted to get the job done while also learning English”. A meeting between low-fluency Chilean employees and US colleagues resulted in “communication failures and a disheartened feeling”.
Unsurprisingly, those who felt least negative about the language switch made the most progress. That did not mean it was always easy for the best English speakers. Those who had a higher level to start with became frustrated by their struggle with what the researchers called “abstractions and nuances in the language”. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who has learnt another language. Even after years of progress, you have conversations that leave you disheartened as your language falls apart during more complex conversations.
Perhaps the most surprising finding was which employees thought they would be better off leaving the company. It was not those who struggled with English who were most likely to go. The better an employee’s English, the higher their desire to move to another job.
The researchers suggest this might have been because the best English speakers became frustrated working with colleagues who were less fluent, or possibly because, with their English language skills, they found it easier to get another job. The second seems particularly likely.
Professors Reiche and Neeley acknowledge the limitations of their research. The number of employees they studied was small and they would need to go beyond two years to understand the long-term impact of the language switch.
Similarly, it would be interesting to see research on the long-term career outcomes of those who achieve high-level communication skills in English and those who do not. Even in countries where English language instruction starts in primary school, some people will do better at English, just as some do better at maths or kicking a ball.
This means it is not enough to master business skills, whether they are in marketing or, as with the Chilean company, in engineering. You can be a top-class engineer and be held back by an inability to speak the global business language.
This is something I should remember as I marvel at non-natives’ English skills. None of them would have come to the Dubai conference if their English was not up to it. The ones I encounter in my work and travels are a self-selecting group. There are plenty whose lack of English limits their global opportunities.