English is the lingua Franca. It is the global language of science, information technology, the arts, and of course business, therefore, if you want to be successful in life and in business, you have to become fluent in this language. Great for native English speakers, they don’t have to learn another language, but for the rest of the world, tough luck!
Well, that seems to be the prevailing attitude… unfortunately…
This has led me to ponder whether this policy is a prudent one for international businesses in Japan. Is it fair that employees be forced to learn another language in their free-time? Will this help or actually hinder the flow of communication into and out of a company? Will it add to the stress felt in an already stressful job market? Is it fair that the rest of the world has to learn English while native English speakers get it easy?
The benefits are obvious. When things need to be done and understood quickly it helps to do away with dictionaries and translators, so that one can respond immediately. More often than not, when you are thinking in a different language to the one being spoken, certain concepts, phrases and terminology will not be easily understood, even with the use of a dictionary. Language is closely connected to culture, and having a good understanding of one helps to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the other. And when that happens there is harmony between thought and deed – and everyone is happy.
However, getting to this stage is incredibly difficult. Make no bones about it, learning a language is one of the most difficult and unnatural things one can do. It involves countless hours of hard effort, study and practice, and for some people it never stops. Therefore, when you consider the average business man or woman in Japan, or any other country for that matter, who is already busy and stressed with his or her daily duties, the added pressure of learning a language might actually have the opposite desired effect. It may even cause once confident people to lose confidence in themselves and the work they do, which would have a catastrophic affect in both business and social communication.
Companies like Rakuten, a Japanese internet retail outlet with a global reach, are undergoing a drive to encourage all of its internal office staff to learn English over the next three to four years. I have met a few employees there, and they have admitted to the stress that it is putting them under. However, at the same same they are fully aware of the big picture and how their contributions will help the company. Hiroshi Mikitani the CEO, pictured above, is greatly aware of just how necessary it is for this Japanese firm to meet the global market on their doorstep. Big in Japan, they are anxious to expand their customer base and international reach, and so have seen fit to introduce such a radical policy.
If any business is considering to make such a move it must be done with the utmost care and caution. They must recognize that some people have an aptitude for picking up and learning new languages quickly, while for others it will take a lot longer. Companies must go through great pains to ensure that no one feels alienated, as the last thing it wants to do is ostracize once loyal and talented employees; Talent is talent, regardless of the language!
On the flip side, it may also be possible that talent gets uncovered, since people who discover new things about themselves (in this case the ability to speak another language) naturally grow in confidence, and will hence start contributing more to any given project or cause.
How to learn the Lingua Franca
While undertaking such a dramatic change is fraught with challenges and obstacles which must be overcome, it can have many benefits over and beyond the immediate company objectives. However, in order for such a project to be successful, there are a few key things for management to remember:
- Ensure that all company personnel are fully briefed on the reasons for the changes. They need to understand the rationale behind such a monumental change, and be privy to the vision and goals for the company, the prospects for the market, and more importantly, understand how their personal role fits in to the big picture.
- Each employee must be assured that regardless of his or her language acquisition, their job will not be at risk. The last thing anyone needs is disengaged workers. It only takes one to sow the seeds of discontent and mistrust throughout a company of any size.
- Be honest with everyone with regards to the company’s progress towards the goal; people naturally gain more motivation the closer they get. Make some kind of progress chart so that the goal is always be visible.
- Keep the momentum going. Starting is easy, but once the going gets tough, which it will, it is absolutely essential that all employees have access to a support system inside the company. Foster a supportive environment from the top to bottom.
- Following on from above, resist the temptation for managers to take separate classes from other employees. Language students build a supportive bond which can reap untold rewards in a business environment. Take this opportunity to build a real sense of rapport between top level staff and the rest of the company.
For more on this topic see the following article: Workers told, ditch local languages for English – CNN.com.