English is the fastest-growing language in human history; more than 1.75 billion speak it people worldwide. Fuelling this trend is the dominance of English in the workplace. In fact, a report from Cambridge Language Assessment shows that 69% of employers around the world identified English proficiency as significant for their organisation.
In Germany, 18 of the 30 DAX Blue Chip Index companies have English as the company’s official language. One of these is Volkswagen – a company whose name alone implies an inherent ‘German-ness’. That did not prevent the company from changing its official language to English in 2016. Siemens and Deutsche Bank have since followed suit and the trend of switching from the language of location to English continues worldwide.
The benefits of switching
Switching to English as a company’s in-house language theoretically allows for easier communications. If everyone speaks the same language, then it should be easier to get deals through or to make and maintain business relationships. It also should take less time and money if all written correspondence is in English – eliminating the need for multiple and costly translation services. Theoretically.
The reality and the challenges
Organisations that make the switch from the local language to English must approach it carefully. After a company in France made the change, one employee described feeling like an outsider in her own company. A weekly meeting, which was normally conducted in French, was suddenly in English – only one week after the language change was announced. Everyone was forced to wear a translator headset, something she wasn’t happy about. “They’re humiliating. I felt like an observer rather than a participant at my own company,” she later said.
Ergo, a German insurance company, switched to English after they hired Tomasz Smaczny to head up their IT operations. Smaczny, born in Poland but raised in Australia, brought in a team of English-speaking experts to the company’s headquarters in Dusseldorf. Suddenly, the entire office had to speak English on daily basis. Misunderstandings became the norm and Germans stopped contributing in meetings because they were too embarrassed to talk.
I hear stories like this on a daily basis. One of my students, who still makes mistakes but is a very clear communicator, is terrified to speak on a conference call. “I’m fine if I hear another non-native speaker on the line, but as soon as I hear an American or British accent, I freeze.”
This lack of confidence has been reported by many companies that have made the switch to English. A survey of employees at a tech company in Germany found that 70% of employees were still frustrated with their English-language skills two years after becoming an English-only company. Surveys have also found that employees worry about career advancement because they think their English isn’t good enough.
This situation came to life for me last week. One of my students, an accountant at a large bank in Frankfurt, is frustrated because she feels unqualified for a job she’s done for over 30 years. When she was hired for the position, they asked about her German, but they never asked her about her English-language skills, which is good because she didn’t have any. (For the record, her mother tongue is Estonian, and she is fluent in both Russian and German.) In September, she was told that she would need to learn English for her job. While the company hasn’t switched to an English-only workplace, many of the emails and phone calls the department receives are in English. She was happy to start learning but was mortified when she discovered that the rating on her annual review and bonus were both tied to how well her English was progressing. To make matters worse, the head of her department spoke to me about this woman’s apparent lack of progress after only 10 weeks of lessons (one 90-minute lesson per week). “She still can’t participate in conference calls or answer more than basic emails.”
So, what can a company do if English has, or is becoming, part of daily work life?
Remember, language is more than words – it’s also culture
Language is central to cultural identity – so taking the native language of employees away can cause hard feelings if it is not done carefully and with tact. Make sure employees understand why the company is transitioning to English and foster a positive learning environment. Employees who don’t buy into the transition won’t put much effort into brushing up on their [probably rusty] English.
It should be a transition, not a leap
A change as significant as this needs to be implemented over time rather than overnight. Start with getting employee buy-in for the transition and fostering that positive environment. Then, give employees a chance to start improving their language skills before making the switch. Hire teachers – even if for a limited time – to be able to work within the company, rather than coming in once or twice a week for lessons. This allows the teacher(s) to understand the exact needs of both students and the company, which means a faster transition with fewer mistakes.
Use native and experienced speakers within the company
This has two parts. The first is that everyone needs to learn to ask for clarification. Phrases like: “So, what you’re saying is…” or “If I understand you correctly…” can go a long way in stopping misunderstandings before they happen. The problem is that many non-native speakers don’t want to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. This is where the native or more experienced speakers can help. If they begin to ask for clarification, others will follow. Also, sending an email to all participants after a meeting or call summarizing what was discussed can help alleviate misunderstandings.
Organisations must understand that language acquisition, no matter how good the teacher is or how motivated the students are, takes longer than a few weeks. This is especially true if the lessons are only once a week, the students can attend only 70% of the time because of work obligations, and/or have absolutely no time (or energy) to do homework in between classes. I’m good, but I don’t have a wand in my bag that can magically make someone fluent. Sit down with the teacher at the outset to determine not only the organisation’s need but how progress will be measured. All improvement is good, and some people simply learn languages at a slower pace than others.
Transitioning to an English-only office doesn’t need to painful; it needs to be managed like any other change.
Thanks for dropping by this week. If you have any questions regarding your organisation’s transition to English, please contact me. I’d be glad to have a chat. If you are interested in lessons, I am available for in-person lessons in Frankfurt and online for those outside of the area. Contact me through the website for more information.
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Marshallsay English – Connecting your world through language.