Businesses, pay attention! Multilingual and bilingual employees might come in handy when translating foreign documents but there are many more benefits you can reap by advertising, recruiting and creating jobs for people who speak languages.
In the Financial Times, Andrew Hill stresses the importance for companies in recruitment of multilingual staff. Many multilingual and bilingual people however are not aware of their potential in the jobs market. Hill cites Antonella Sorace, a professor at the University of Edinburgh originally from Italy. When she visited the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, she discovered that the Bank’s employees were worried about something she felt was one of their best assets. Sorace: ‘They had all kinds of doubts about the benefits of multilingualism for their children; they worried their children weren’t learning to read or write properly – in any language.’
The professor, however, thinks employees mustn’t worry, as her research has proven that multilingualism does not only benefit communication, but offers cognitive advantages as well. Her advice?
‘Hire more multilingual employees, because these employees can communicate better, have better cultural sensitivity, are better at co-operating, negotiating, compromising.’
Many businesses are already convinced of the importance of language skills in recruitment Hill says. At management consultancy McKinsey, for example, more than 130 languages are spoken and employees who want to learn another language can even apply for a bursary. Unilever, moreover, has estimated that around 80 of their 100 senior leaders speak two or more languages.
Language skills are mainly important for international companies because they ensure business relations, both with suppliers and clients, run smoothly. In addition, a recent roundtable led by the Financial Times revealed that executives and consultants also think they can profit from the various backgrounds and skills of people who speak more languages in other ways as well. Laurence Monnery, co-head of global diversity and inclusion at executive search company Egon Zehnder, agrees: ‘Multiculturalism makes better leaders.’
It has been proven that multilingual and bilingual people can relate better to other’s points of view; this is because from an early age onwards, they have been aware that people can favour a different perspective. When having to give selective attention to something or switch between tasks, bilingualists also outperform than monolingualists. Professor Sorace believes this is because bilingualists do not ‘switch off’ their second language, which means their brains have become more adaptable – very convenient in today’s business world, Hill says!
Even though bilingualism is thus beneficial for your communication and work skills, many companies still focus of the practical advantages bilingualists provide. Take for example HSBC. The bank emphasises the fact that it hires multilingual staff, but Jorge Aisa Dreyfus, the company’s co-head of learning, talent, resourcing and organisational development, says that the comapny is ‘probably still paying too much attention to [the fact] that you speak German, so you [can] handle all my German business.’
Many businesses in the UK are not that eager to advertise multilingual jobs as global business is mostly carried out in English. Academics fear this development, as it might mean British children will no longer learn a foreign language at school. Cardiff Business School’s James Foreman-Peck estimates that the under-investment in language skills will cost the UK economy ‘the equivalent of between 3 and 7 per cent tax on British exports.’
These problems are not only apparent in the United Kingdom. In 2006, the European Commision released a report that stated the continent missed out on ‘a significant amount of business’ because of poor language skills. The report indicated that because of this, 11 per cent of European SMEs had lost a contract.
The cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language can only be enjoyed when adults become proficient in a second language, Professor Sorace says. However, if the quality of language education declines, less people will be able to achieve this proficiency.
Multinationals are usually better at attracting multilingual staff than small companies as they can recruit employees all over the world. However, big companies do have the tendency to be complacent. Tracey Roseborough, international Managing Director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says she has experienced the advantages of multilingalism when she worked for Standard Chartered. However, she also noticed that the language skills in big American companies she has worked for leave much to be desired.
Concluding, Professor Sorace gives companies the advice to squash misconceptions about bilingualism and to help expats to integrate in local communities This will benefit the employees and their families greatly. She is mainly concerned about the failing educational systems, however, especially the school systems in the UK, of which its inhabitants have the poorest language skills in all of Europe. Continuing on this path will result in a loss of potential and business for the British; a change of plans is thus essential.