Opinion

Multi-lingual teams: What you can learn from Premier League football

3 min read

18 December 2013

Often, when we think about examples of multi-lingual teams, we think of large multinational organisations such as IBM, Toyota, or Saudi Aramco. However, there's another good example of how multi-lingual teams work well in a less conventional model: the UK’s Premier League football.

Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has changed from teams made up of almost entirely English players to a collection of players from more than 96 different countries. In recent years, less than 40 per cent of all Premier League players are English. Although some of these foreign nationals may speak English, many do not.  Some 75 per cent of managers are also not English, although several more are from elsewhere in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Thus, there is a higher percentage of native English speakers amongst Premier League management.

But what challenges does the multi-lingual profile of the Premier League present for team building? Communication is important in teambuilding. However, language is only part of the equation. Body language such as eye contact, hand gestures and tone of voice all come in to play.

Interestingly, no English manager has ever won the Premier league. Of the six winning managers, four managers did not speak English as their mother tongue. Arguably, at least some of them could be described as less than fluent English speakers. So, what did they do right?
 
Placing trust in team members who have the language skills to explain what a manager or other team member is saying also tends to foster strong teams by exhibiting a sense of cooperation. Leading by example, illustration and practice are all non-verbal communication skills that good managers utilise, especially when language cannot effectively unite the team. 

Developing motivation and drive amongst the team makes the entire team stronger, as does a feeling of belonging. Knowing where each team member fits makes for clear structure. Roles that are clearly defined make it easier to understand their position within a team’s hierarchy, not just with their manager but also with the more senior members of their team, such as the team captain.
 
Ultimately, good teams need to respect one another and find a way to work together.  Showing respect for their team leadership and other team members can overcome the language barrier.

Pascale Chauvot is the Head of Training Management at Communicaid, a culture and communications training provider. A French national based in London, she specialises in languages and has previously taught French and Spanish in schools before becoming a professional language trainer. 

Image Source