Can language help teams cross the cultural divide?

With domestic workforces becoming more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and companies of all sizes increasingly tapping into foreign markets, today’s average business will typically list employees of mixed nationality and race. English may no longer be the dominant language, and personal values may range from compatible to conflicting. That these people get on and understand each other, both in the spoken word and in deeper beliefs, is paramount to the business’ success.

Over the past few decades, ever-advancing technology and cheaper foreign travel have made the world progressively smaller. Even in times of recession it makes good business sense to exploit this heightened accessibility by penetrating emerging markets that are less affected by the crises currently crippling western economies. In fact there is almost no reason for a business not to expand into foreign territory, hence the now common practice of international mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and offshoring. With this often comes relocation of staff for short or longer-term stints, the transfer of skills between countries, and in effect a workforce with huge potential for growth and success.

It would however be naïve to enter foreign waters ill equipped. There is no quicker way to widen the cultural divide than to march into a foreign business or culture and expect them to adopt your language and customs to the detriment of theirs. Successful partnerships, whether with a new or existing market, depend on relationship building, and these relationships can only be formed with a degree of linguistic and cultural awareness.

Language training is key to opening communication channels and to maintaining the free flow of information and ideas within a business environment. Study of any language also naturally embraces the culture or cultures associated with it; you may for example learn about a country’s food or art, government or geography. Even basic etiquette such as greetings, socialising, time-keeping, dress and body language – each of which hold ample scope for faux pas – may be covered through linguistic development, as this often goes hand in hand with cultural sensitivities. Finally, on a practical level, the natural knock-on effect of improved verbal, written, reading and listening skills that come from learning another language will only enhance team communication further.

If organising language training for your company, it is advisable to tailor-make classes so they are geared towards the specific needs of your industry and target market, and thus cover cultural particularities at the same time. This will give staff the skills necessary to build sustainable long-term relationships, manage teams based in different offices around the world and reduce culture shock for any incoming and outgoing workforce. The resulting pooling of talents under a common language can only serve to boost a company’s productivity and inner harmony.

It is with this type of investment that language can go a long way towards bridging the cultural divide.

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