Lack of Language Skills—Biggest Obstacle for Expats?

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As organisations continue to expand beyond their home markets, they are faced with numerous challenges. While entering a new market is full of risks – whether the organisation goes it alone or collaborates with a local partner – there is much that can be done to minimise these risks. Learning from peers, adjusting your offer to the local culture and navigating the rules of doing business in the new country are just some of the ways that you can reduce the chances of failure.

Equally, any company will stand or fall by its employees. This is particularly true when a company looks to open new markets – be they national or international. Opening a new office, manufacturing plant or joint venture in any new country will inevitably lead to relocating tried and trusted staff to ensure a smooth launch. Equally, more and more companies are using international assignments as part of their employee and graduate development programmes.

It’s All About Speaking the Lingo, Right?

Speaking the LingoWhile millions (if not billions) are spent on new international ventures very little thought or investment is actually given to preparing international assignees to speak the language of the new international market. While the cost of relocating personnel is well documented (as is the cost of repatriating them…), why is it that companies often spend more on relocating a pet than they do on preparing their staff to speak the language of their new customers?

Many organisations make the mistake of thinking that learning the local language is not necessary for the newly arrived expatriate, especially if they will continue to conduct their business in the corporate language, most often English. Unfortunately for organisations with this mindset, expatriates do not spend all 24 hours of each day at the office and not all local employees speak English that well. Equally, they must also integrate with their new country and new community if they are to be a success.

Language learning can be time consuming, exciting and frustrating, especially if the employee is not motivated or has other priorities that they consider to be more pressing. However, forward thinking organisations also consider local language skills to be a necessary tool to improve the chances of the employee and their family settling successfully in their new assignment and home.

Poor Language Skills: Biggest Obstacle to a Successful Assignment

invest-in-language-learningIn a recent article published in The Telegraph, global mobility managers have identified poor or non-existent language learning to be the biggest obstacle to successful expatriate assignments – they believe this to be the case in over three-fifths of all assignments. In addition, the same managers recognise in more than half of all cases, learning the local language is critical to the success of conducting business abroad.

As an example, it would be deemed critical that an employee seconded to China learned Chinese even if English is widely spoken at work.

In other words, local language skills remain crucial to understand the local market, build rapport with colleagues and show and interest in the culture of your new country.

However, just over one third of employees interviewed reported that their organisation provided local language training as a part of their relocation package.

Investing in Language Training Saves Money

Although investing in language lessons may seem expensive on the surface, both in costs measured in time and money, the cost of a failed assignment is even more expensive: An expatriate family’s relocation expenses are quoted to come in at an average of $400,000. This figure is certainly more than most organisations can afford to lose on an otherwise preventable failed assignment.

Can your organisation afford to pay for failure?

Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid, a culture and communication skills consultancy which provides language training solutions to corporations and professionals.

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