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Fostering teamwork in a multilingual setting

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This is where challenges may be presented when a team comes together with varying levels of linguistic skills.

For example, organisations, which have offices in many different countries, may communicate with each other in English in their corporate environment. But each local office may find it necessary, for a variety of reasons, to communicate in the local language when working with suppliers, partners and customers. Members of a team who have joined an office without local language skills may feel marginalised if they do not learn the local language.

Local employees may also cause discomfort or offence to expatriate team members – often inadvertently – when they speak their own language just going about their daily routine. Even when local employees are aware of others’ limited linguistic skills and speak in the corporate language, this may not always occur when socialising, such as at lunch.

Other local employees may believe that expatriates should learn the local language as a part of their assignment; after all, they have relocated to another country and should be prepared to adapt to local practices. On the other hand, expatriates who believe their career will involve several relocations abroad may find it overwhelming just to contemplate learning a new language for every new two or three year assignment. None of these attitudes bode well for positive team working.

Similar linguistic challenges occur when a significant number of employees, who speak a common language, relocate to another office. In a corporate environment, that may be to headquarters. Although it is almost certainly expected that the corporate language is spoken at headquarters, if enough people come together share and occasionally speak another language, there may be resentment from employees who do not understand them and may even feel they are undermining corporate values. And as some employees based in a corporate headquarters office may have limited exposure to travel or linguistic diversity compared to a field office, linguistic discord may be even more problematic for people with limited exposure to other languages and cultures.

Most organisations would certainly value linguistic diversity but would also wish to avoid or minimise some of the common problems that have been described.  In order to foster good teamwork in a multilingual environment, the following practices may help.

Define your corporate language

Even when an organisation defines a corporate language, there may be dialect differences. American and British teams often struggle with this issue if this point is not resolved.

Define when and where your corporate language is used

Some organisations insist on using their corporate language at all times during business hours. Of course, the advantage is that all employees will be able to communicate with one another. It may also help to reduce de facto linguistic segregation, especially in informal settings. It also helps include others in a more casual ‘water cooler’ environment, which is still an important source of information and ideas. The main disadvantage is when an entire office feels uncomfortable speaking a foreign language in their own country. Setting expectations, ideally at job interview stage, can minimise these difficulties.

Define if and when it’s ok to use another language

Even in the strictest corporate linguistic environments, most organisations recognise that there are times when the local language must be used, especially when working with local companies. Defining how these meetings and business practices are to be conducted when an employee must be present but does not speak the local language is crucial for a feeling of inclusion on the team.

Other organisations may wish to encourage employees to learn the local language in an informal work environment. Perhaps partnering with a local employee starts them on their linguistic journey as well as giving them insight on local cultural norms.

Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid a culture and business communication skills consultancy.

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