Four ways to cultivate linguistic diversity in your company

Two Asian men sitting at a table

4 mins, 32 secs read time

The benefits of linguistic diversity are manifold. Not only do you gain skills for communicating with new foreign markets, but you also enrich your company culturally.

But recruiting multilingual candidates comes with challenges as well. How do you attract candidates who have a different mother tongue and make them feel comfortable during the application and interview process? What adjustments can optimize and streamline the onboarding and acculturation phase?

The impact on retention rate and talent acquisition can be dramatic. We look at best practices, tips and tricks to make recruitment easier and improve retention of valuable multilingual employees.

Most of us have been, at some point in our lives, strangers in a strange land. Whether it was entering a country where we didn’t speak the language, entering college without knowing a soul or starting a new job without having a clue about corporate culture, the feeling of alienation is familiar to virtually everyone.

The challenges of multilingual staff in multinational organizations

We focus here on making multilingual staff feel at home in multinational corporations. The benefits of diversity and inclusion are obvious: while English may be the lingua franca in much (though not all) of the business world, forcing everyone to speak only English is hardly optimal. On the other hand, a linguistic free-for-all can be a recipe for disaster. Breaking down cultural and linguistic walls is a good thing, but not if it leads to chaos, destruction and misunderstandings.

The business benefits of being bilingual are obvious. Bilingualism has been proven beneficial to the brain. Learning and using more than one language develops new parts of your brain, developing new neural pathways, which, quite simply, make you smarter and more interesting. These days, multinational operations often deal not just with two but with many mixed tongues. Here are best practices for attracting and fostering a multilingual culture.

Studies show that a multinational company is in fact a multilingual community in diverse ways, and should be treated at such. This interesting paper shows the impact of language on organizations in a global context.

Linguistic diversity in the workplace starts at the top

Awareness of the importance of multilingualism needs to start from the top. Studies show that fluency in more than one language makes you a better, smarter manager. Using more than one language produces measurable improvement in problem-solving and planning skills, reasoning and working memory, among other functions important to management. Interestingly, bilinguals have stronger inhibitory control, which lets you better filter irrelevant stimuli, and therefore able to judge what is most relevant to a decision – and what is not. That’s something every manager needs.

Leadership commitment to multilingualism is also a policy decision. Management should lead the way in encouraging recruitment of multiple language speakers and in developing linguistic diversity in the workforce, setting standards for communications that help staff improve language skills rather than shying away from interactions with employees who don’t share their mother tongue.

There are quite a few things leaders can do, such as including foreign language use in their public appearances, learning a relevant language themselves, and supporting multiple language events through hiring translators and professional interpreters. This will ensure that important events and documents are easily accessible and inclusive to all. Knowing more than one language is also crucial to successful international marketing and networking.

It’s not just a language – it’s a culture

Language is like the clothing of distinct cultures. It’s not enough to just talk the talk. You also need to walk the walk. That means giving staff who speak foreign language respect for their mother tongue, as well as giving them opportunities to share their cultural heritage with others in the company. That can be done with food, with music, with culture and with presentations that highlight the richness and humor of a different language. When staff laugh and eat together, when they perform together, they form bonds that weave a tapestry of camaraderie in your workplace, both within the office and across offices.

Make linguistic exchanges a pleasure

Inter-language communication should begin from the onboarding process. One proven technique in many companies is having an onboarding buddy who can show a new employee the ropes. Part of showing someone around should be a two-way language exchange, explaining terms and hearing how those terms sound in the new employee’s native tongue. Another fun exercise is “words of the week” in which staff who speak a different language teach 5–10 new words in their language to their colleagues. You can also add in a quiz on ‘Fun Friday’ to help the words stick.

Not to be underestimated is offering free or subsidized language courses, or weekly or lunchtime conversation groups, or nights out at a pub or karaoke for language and cultural exchanges. Practicing a foreign language should be fun.

Making cool translation tools ubiquitous

Today’s smartphones can be simultaneous translators. Google Translate and Microsoft Translator are just two of a multitude of apps out there that make two-way real-time communication across languages super simple. Whether it’s translating text documents, screens or menus, these translation apps do it in a snap. And improvements in voice recognition and AI-powered neural translation make it easy to fluently converse with someone who doesn’t know your language – and vice versa. Whether you translate English to Spanish, or Spanish to English, the apps make the conversation fluid. They really do work like magic, facilitating business, networking and the free exchange of ideas with colleagues and customers.

You’ll probably may even make some new friends along the way.