Language Flagship

Language needs in the 21st century

The Language Flagship, an initiative of the National Security Education Program (NSEP) at the U.S. Department of Defense, has undertaken one of the most systematic efforts, to date, to assess and understand the needs for global skills in business. Over the past three years, this effort engaged more than 100 business leaders to identify the role and value of languages and cultural skills to business’ bottom line. Of equal importance, it identified a potential role for business as an integral part of a dynamic that will bring significant change to language education in the United States.

In the face of strong perceptions that English is — and will continue to be — the lingua franca of international business and that most companies address their language needs through creative “workarounds” (hiring in-country nationals and using translators), Flagship sought to delineate the actual needs of business for an American workforce with global skills including advanced language proficiency. This also included domestic business dealings with a multilingual workforce and/or clientele. We were impressed to learn of a real need, and real opportunity costs, as well as a call for more systematic discussion of the role and value of language skills, not only within the business sector but throughout American education and society.

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Business will suffer poor contracts and lose customers because of language barriers

Losing potential or actual business because of misunderstandings through language and culture can cost a company millions of dollars. Deals lost because of lack of understanding on both sides result in loss of return on investment in the business infrastructure overseas, actual business revenue loss, and loss of an important perception of “competitive edge.” Developing new business, especially negotiating complex arrangements, increasingly requires a full knowledge of the language and culture of the region

Lack of trust in business relationships reduces or precludes revenues. Developing trust with clients and overseas partners requires advanced language and cultural skills. Higher proficiency in the language produces better relationships and moves that development time along more quickly than lack of language skills. A representative of Federal Express pointed out that their international customers expect the regulatory information in the FedEx database to be in their own language. Without that linguistic connection, there is loss of trust in the data, resulting in a lack of business-generating revenues. The same holds true for maintaining good in-country partner relationships, particularly since a corporate partner often services in-country customer needs. If communications with business partners are not on target, companies find themselves in a position of being overcharged and underserved, and potentially alienating their own customers.

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Marketing and communications

Successful businesses recognize the need to be accurate — culturally and linguistically — in their international marketing campaigns as well as in their marketing efforts to domestic multilingual communities. “Translating” well-known American brands overseas challenges companies looking to enter diverse markets with a variety of cultural traits. The concept of developing customer loyalty requires knowledge of and sensitivity to the host culture at a high level. The potential loss of trust — and commensurate loss of business — underscores the importance of a full knowledge of the language and culture for external communications, marketing, and branding, as well as for handling government and media relations. Several participants expressed that there is a laziness that pervades communications throughout American society; but that communication is key to developing trusted relationships in other cultures. Advanced knowledge of languages and cultures of the country and community is necessary to successful external communications. This supports brand awareness, marketing, and sales for small, medium, and large companies alike.

Win the “War for Talent”

Inability to staff appropriately — with the right language skills and in a timely fashion — results in loss of business. Losing good talent because of lack of management support and inability to communicate in the employees’ language costs a company in the long run. Winning the “war for talent,” as one businessman put it, becomes increasingly important as overseas markets grow, and as domestic clientele with language needs increase. Companies face the cost of training new employees unless they are able to retain them with appropriate support from management. This means communicating effectively in the language and culture of their staff for efficiency of operations and for employees’ full usage of human resource benefits (e.g., retirement plans, healthcare support).

Companies in the United States and abroad often manage employees who do not speak English well, but need to access corporate employee portals that are offered only in English. One company noted that they have online services for their customers offered in 22 languages, but their employee portal is only in English, though they have many service employees who do not speak English well. This means further misunderstandings of regulations and under-use of benefits.

Upper management needs to make language learning a priority

Ultimately the challenge remains for these companies to identify good talent with language skills, either Americans or foreign nationals, and retain them for their skills. The lack of understanding and commitment from upper management to recognize the need for language skills internally undermines the support for those skills through improved recruitment of talent and improved compensation plans. Management often considers language skills a “soft” issue, therefore not requiring immediate or concerted efforts for change.

As a separate issue, several participants in this Flagship series noted that English is still an important language around the world and that businesses should require English language training for non-English speakers working abroad and in the United States. However, only one person in the series remarked that he was satisfied with his business dealings in English; and was able to sell product into Asia very successfully relying on his Asian buyers for their knowledge of English.

The above content is excerpts from The Language Flagship, National Security Education Program. View the full report here.

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The Language Flagship Program

The Language Flagship leads the nation in designing, supporting, and implementing a new paradigm for advanced language education. Through an innovative partnership among the federal government, education, and business, The Language Flagship seeks to graduate students who will take their place among the next generation of global professionals, commanding a superior level of proficiency in one of many languages critical to U.S. competitiveness and security.

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