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Why Adopting an Official Corporate Language Is Not Enough

Cultural intelligence will help employees negotiate meaning.

The founder of Rakuten, Inc., the largest e-commerce site in Japan, now among the world’s largest by sales, decided to introduce an English-only policy in his company in 2012. As global business accelerated and it shifted from a Japan-based venture to a global internet services company, ‘Englishnisation’ initiatives were launched to accelerate the smooth integration of 17,000 employees worldwide. This meant that all meetings, presentations, documents, training sessions and emails—even the menus in the restaurants—were to be entirely in English.

Common language policies such as these have been celebrated by some, questioned by others, and critiqued by the business as well as academic worlds. However, to understand the implications of such policies, and whether they are enough on their own to create a global business community, they need to be examined in a more nuanced way.

It is true that with increasing globalisation — never-ending mergers, acquisitions, and alliances — organisations need to decide on a language policy. The decision to choose a common corporate language allows companies to:

  • facilitate and improve in-house communication.
  • facilitate external communication with suppliers and customers.
  • increase efficiency (time, costs).
  • create a sense of belongingness within the firm.
  • control and monitor communication exchanges.
  • attract employees globally.

In theory, a common language allows companies to be truly global and attract talent worldwide to all sites. A common corporate language creates bonding, communication ease, and better understanding. The bond between speakers of BELF (Business English as a Foreign Language) can be especially strong, as they realise that others are also speaking a language that is not their native tongue, and so they share the experience of acquiring a second language and are aware of the language traps that create misunderstandings.

Many Pitfalls

While it can bring many benefits, when an organisation changes to the exclusive use of English as a corporate language, non-native speakers of English can also experience a status loss.

If there is a common corporate language, there are almost certainly other languages at play, such as the host country language. Even if English is the corporate language for Rakuten, it would be difficult for a foreign colleague to live and work in Japan if he or she does not speak any Japanese at all. On the other hand, someone who knows Japanese will have easier access to local information inside and outside of the organisation.

In her research on corporate language, Rebecca Piekkari explores these pitfalls of a common corporate language. She identifies four S’s. Sidetracking refers to the glass ceiling produced by the corporate language: If my level of the corporate language is not good enough, I will never get to the top. The silencing effect of corporate language refers to the reduction of the overall level of internal communication in the organisation. The stagnating effect can limit strategy work and create inability for candidates to market themselves, and the sifting effect relates to the common corporate language as an intermediate language for selective information sharing.

Piekkari is correct that language can be used as a power game, as an excuse to limit access to non-native speakers because their level of English is ‘not up to scratch.’ So what is the solution? One is that while non-native speakers of English have to make the effort to learn English, native speakers of English must make the effort to learn another language, too. Only then will they understand the bond that non-native speakers create between them.

The CEMS programme, for instance, on which I teach, requires proficiency in English as well as another language, plus an at least elementary understanding of a third by the end of the year. The idea behind this is to create a true sense of global community, in which no-one feels like an outsider.

Consider Meaning

It is also not enough to speak the common language on its own; employees and leaders need to negotiate the tangled web of ‘meaning.’ It is crucial that we mean the same thing when we discuss concepts, decisions or negotiations.

For example, take a conversation between a Western consultancy receiving a delegation from a Japanese investment company, which went completely wrong because of different expectations of the meaning of a first contact. The Western company characterises itself as “determined, dynamic, and speedy,” and expects the Japanese delegation to discuss the business at hand. But the Japanese delegation of “junior staff” talks about “trivial” issues such as the weather. Where the consultants want to be efficient from the first meeting, the purpose of the initial visit is nothing but credibility assessment for the Japanese. It is standard Japanese business practice to assess the environment and people of the company they visit, and maybe later visits can proceed with the business at hand.

Cultural Intelligence Will Unlock the Puzzle

Ultimately, developing cultural intelligence (CQ) hand-in-hand with language learning in any global company or business school programme is key to creating an international business community. In business we want to create lasting relationships, which is why deep cultural understanding is so crucial. Global employees need to acquire as much knowledge as they can about the cultures they work with, be curious and eager to learn, and discover as many things as possible that will enable them to be successful in the international business world.

I teach my students that cultural intelligence is a skill which can be acquired, but which takes constant practice, repetition, correction, and reflection. New knowledge creates new connections in the brain, and this cannot start early enough. Learning another language is particularly beneficial, as it develops parts of the brain that help with many different cognitive skills and social understanding. Thus language learning and CQ are inextricably linked, distinguishing graduates from others and giving them an edge for recruitment in international companies.

Ultimately, while a common corporate language has benefits, business leaders need to examine the impact of the choices of language policies in more detail. They also need to make sure they add to those policies a large helping of cultural intelligence, if they hope to successfully negotiate meaning, nurture respect, and create long-lasting, productive global relationships.

This post was originally published by LSE Business review.