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Mind your language!

15th Jan 2010
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Which language should an organisation choose to invest in for training purposes? Matthew Hill gives us the low-down.

This question must take into consideration the geographical location of its staff and the global geo-political situation of the economy. Traditionally, northern Australian companies have tended to encourage staff to learn Japanese for example. However, the power of the Chinese economy has become more influential in recent years, and this has resulted in Chinese now becoming the more popular language to learn. If on the other hand, you need to do business in Brazil then Portuguese would be the language of choice. In India, English is the most widely understood language and in Russia learn one Slavic language and you can get by in ten countries.
However, it is worth remembering that on average it takes over 3,000 hours of study to gain the basic grasp of any language – this is almost a year and a half of full-time effort. 

The world is getting smaller

Given the continually challenging economic situation, many organisations are looking at how to improve the efficiency and increase their return on investment in language training. To achieve this, language training must be aligned very closely with the cultural setting in which the employee is set to use the language.
"In Japan humility and apology are an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Japanese people. Learning the many formulations for ‘I am sorry’ will be important."
It may seem like common sense that an army corp should undertake a nine-month intensive language training course before embarking on sensitive manoeuvres abroad. However, a substantial portion of this investment will be wasted if the focus is on learning school-boy phrases and the names of zoo animals - (it has happened).
To illustrate this further, let us consider some general examples. In Russia, trust is an important cultural value and relationships needs to be built before any business is conducted. Russians need to understand their business counterpart’s ‘soul and morality’ before they can enjoy any productive working relationship. Learning the words for ‘cow’ or ‘butter’ will therefore, get you nowhere. However, 50 words and phrases for the inevitable vodka conversation: ‘I am… I believe in… my family values are…’ will be invaluable.
You may have always been told to stay away from religion. However, in Turkey, during the introductory meal, the Muslim difference will always be discussed. You will need to have an opinion and the words to express it to connect with new Turkish colleagues.
In Japan humility and apology are an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Japanese people. Learning the many formulations for ‘I am sorry’ will be important. 
In this way, ensuring any language lessons are firmly put into the cultural context of the environment that they will be used in, will maximise the effectiveness of any training. In addition, a day-long cultural training course which runs alongside a language programme will be invaluable to any student, as dictates where to use the appropriate language learned.
Initial meetings are key opportunities to make an impression with new colleagues. Knowledge and interest in the history and heritage of a country will demonstrate respect which is an important value in many cultures. Often this knowledge can have a greater impact than being 100% fluent in the appropriate language.


Mind your Ps and Qs

In addition, prior research into national habits may avoid such cultural faux pas as shaking hands over a threshold in Russia for example, using the left or ‘dirty’ hand in Asian countries or wearing inappropriate dress in Middle Eastern countries.
"To achieve a good ROI the language training must be aligned very closely with the cultural setting in which the employee is set to use the language."
Gaining cultural understanding will also ensure that we become aware of our own ‘invisible’ cultural rules which equally, others may find surprising or even offensive. Awareness of our own values, developed from years of living in one country, then allows small adjustments to be made to smooth those critical initial and ongoing interchanges with colleagues from different nations.
Learning a language can be undertaken in the classroom. However, it is easy to see from the examples illustrated how ensuring such training has a clear focus on how the new skills will ultimately be used in a cultural context, will ultimately pay much higher dividends.
It is easy to see from the examples illustrated the importance of ensuring such training has a clear focus on how the new skills will ultimately be used in a cultural context. Undertaking language training with a specialist training organisation, such as Farnham Castle, who can provide tuition integrated with cultural awareness, will ultimately pay much higher dividends.   
Read our previous series on cultural training:

Full of Middle Eastern promise: Top tips for smooth working in the Middle East

The rising sun: Top tips for dealing with the Japanese market

Some like it hot: Top tips for smooth working in India

Taming the dragon: Top tips for dealing with the Chinese market

Living the dream: Top tips for smooth negotiations with the American market

Matthew Hill is a consultant  and intercultural trainer at Farnham Castle, the international briefing and conference centre which specialises in cross cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings and language training for every country in the world. For further information visit www.farnhamcastle.com.

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