How to Leverage a Multilingual Team
for Maximum Success
By Sophie Jackson
It’s tough to calculate the exact extent to which miscommunication has cost businesses in lost revenue and productivity.
Most of us can probably recount a few first-hand experiences of projects failing due to catastrophic communication, which gives a clue as to how widespread the problem is. When employees don’t communicate effectively, workplace morale and productivity suffers. In some workplaces, the potential consequences are even direr; miscommunication can compromise employee safety. Business leaders know this.
Indeed, successful companies have long realized that “workplace communication” is not so much a secret to success as it is one of the most obvious ingredients. As the prevalence of remote work continues past the pandemic, companies are investing considerably in communication tools, consultants, and workshops. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that some companies are concerned about the risks of a team that does not share a common language.
That concern is misplaced, however.
Multilingualism is not a communication barrier to overcome — nor is it an inconvenient byproduct of an international work environment. A linguistically diverse team, if leveraged strategically, can benefit a business enormously by strengthening both internal and external communication. When working with limited resources, multilingual employees provide an untapped goldmine of opportunity for a company looking to cross borders. From transcript translations to in-house testing, here’s how to get the most out of a multilingual workplace for happier customers, clients, and culture.
Communication becomes clearer out of necessity
Monolingual individuals often struggle to identify aspects of language that are difficult for non-native speakers to understand. Without a secondary linguistic perspective, it’s easy to overlook the lack of clarity arising from common idioms or colloquialisms.
Let’s imagine you’re a UX specialist whose first language is not English, and you’re reading the descriptions of a job for which you are perfectly qualified. The ad specifies that the company is looking for someone who can “nail down” action points even when other aspects of product development remain “up in the air.” Someone who can “bring something to the table” and implement designs that make user navigation “a piece of cake.”
This job posting sends a signal — however subtle — that the workplace is not particularly inclusive.
Consciously or otherwise, a non-native speaker will likely be discouraged from applying to the job. If the company does in fact boast a diverse and international workplace, then the job listing does not succeed in conveying this aspect due to the recruiter’s choice of words. Business English is International English that centers on clarity for the sake of effective communication and inclusivity. By failing to communicate with an international audience in mind, you could be missing out on opportunities to attract top talent. If understanding localisms is not essential to the role, then a job description shouldn’t make it seem that way.
In a multilingual work environment, extra precautions are typically employed to communicate in International English. Consequently, this overall clarity of communication improves (even between those who speak English natively). After all, there exist colloquialisms that are unique to Britain, slang you’ll only hear in Australia, and sentence structures that are distinctly Maltese.
Miscommunication can occur even between native English speakers. In a workplace that actively adopts International or Business English, everyone benefits. Naturally this is not only true of English-speaking workplaces. The same principle can be applied in companies that wish to employ Universal Spanish, or any other “neutral form” of an internationally spoken language.
Impress your clients and leads
Some companies discourage workers from speaking to clients and leads in their native language, arguing that workplace transparency suffers when important communication becomes indecipherable to important stakeholders.
For example: Imagine you’re a sales or customer success representative. Any one of your teammates should be able to skim through an email chain with a client, or read notes taken during a call with a sales prospect, when you’re OOO or reassigned. This becomes complicated, however, if prior communication with the customer has been undertaken in a language different from the one your colleague is accustomed to communicating in.
At the same time, speaking a lead’s native language has been shown to strengthen the likelihood of closing a deal. TrustSignals, an agency specializing in brand trust, explains that communicating with customers in their mother tongue is key to expansional success in their article “English May Be the Language of Business, But the Language of Trust Is Your Customer’s Mother Tongue.” Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review claims more than half of customers are willing to pay more for your product if the marketing and communication is provided in their native language.
At first glance, this may seem like a dilemma. Should you let employees communicate externally in their native tongue, when it’s in the company’s best interest to do so? Or, for the sake of consistent documentation and transparency, should you require that the same language is always employed in external communications?
Actually though, businesses do not have to choose. By being smart about communicative technology, it’s possible to systematically translate multilingual external conversations into a common internal language. For example, a tool like tl;dv can be used to quickly gain translatable transcripts for Zoom calls with your lead or customer. The idea is that a sales team should be able to leverage multilingualism to persuade sales prospects and impress clients — all without compromising on internal communication. Call transcripts can be instantly translated into 20 major languages, meaning a sales rep could speak French with a lead, then share the key conversation takeaways with their English-speaking team.
Tech tools like this are sometimes used by multilingual teams to conduct user testing and research in their target audience’s own language. Without transcript translations, a user researcher has to interview their users in a language that is not their mother tongue, thereby missing out on important nuances of expression in feedback. Alternatively, they’ll spend time translating insights from user calls before sharing them with stakeholders and developers. You get the best of both worlds when calls can be conducted in any language, and then automatically translated for the sake of internal sharing.
Your multilingual test audience is always close at hand
Any company looking to take their business abroad will rightfully worry about the localization blunders that can make or break a brand’s expansional success. Global corporations have entire departments dedicated toward localization. Often, localization relates to non-text branding, such as Lay’s salt and vinegar chips being packaged blue in the US and green in the UK. IKEA, meanwhile, has smaller showroom kitchens in cities like Tokyo, due to the average apartment size being smaller in the Japanese capital. Different styles of marketing persuade different cultures, so a mere translation of your content won’t go very far if you want to take your product to a new market.
Localization does not only translate a brand message, it translates the way in which that message is conveyed. The German supermarket Lidl is an excellent example of how to localize, rather than simply translate. In English, Lidl’s slogan is “Big on quality, Lidl on price.” Wordplay seldomly translates well into other languages, which is why each Lidl market has its own unique slogan, featuring a wordplay that works in the market language. In Sweden, for example, the company plays with the Swedish word “olidligt,” which translates to “unbearable,” in its Swedish slogan: “Lidl – everything else is unbearable.” So what does this have to do with your multilingual workforce?
Smaller businesses do well in being resourceful. With a multilingual workforce, you’re able to run localization strategies and ideas by employees whose mother tongue allows them to judge how the brand will be perceived in the target market. You can regard employees with different native languages as an in-house knowledge base and test audience.
This doesn’t just go for the localization of slogans, but also of user manuals, help articles, website copy, microcopy; any other kind of brand content for which a native-level localization is essential. Don’t stop at quality assurance. If your multilingual employees are happy to lend their language competency toward a diverse range of tasks, you can extend your brand monitoring to include analysis of social media posts and reviews in other languages. Search Engine Journal has published a good round-up of ways to track brand mentions across several markets.
Linguistic exchanges are culturally enriching for everyone
Anyone who has worked in an international environment will know just how well diversity strengthens problem-solving, collaborative creativity, and overall performance.
This is especially true of linguistically diverse workplaces. Language impacts the way we think, and the perspectives we are subsequently able to contribute. Multilingual workplaces have a positive impact on performance not just because they’re typically diverse, but because the very act of hearing different languages can increase cognitive function and creativity. We all know the benefits of speaking several languages, but there exists research pointing to the advantages of simply hearing many languages on a regular basis. Being exposed to multilingualism may increase our ability to learn other languages, and at the very least identify rhythms and words common to another language.
Finally, multilingualism is something on which to base team bonding activities and games. Encourage weekly Duolingo challenges or language exchange sessions on Fridays. A simple game, like posting a word to Slack each morning for everyone with a different mother tongue to translate, can prompt interesting conversations, awareness, and appreciation of other languages, and even some laughs. Continuous learning is central to a happy workplace, and by placing the spotlight on the range of languages spoken by team members, colleagues will regularly learn something new about etymology, culture, scripts, proverbs, and forms of expression.
By approaching multilingualism as a business asset, companies can leverage language for better sales, clearer communication, smarter user research, successful brand expansion, and greater attraction of top talent. Take advantage of a multilingual team’s potential with the tools, practices, and workplace culture that utilizes their mother tongues.
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