We tend to associate multilingual employees with translation agencies and other businesses where the ability to speak multiple languages is intrinsic to the job. But as more and more companies seek to expand globally, having multilingual employees has become a competitive advantage on a larger scale.
Especially in the European Union, which benefits from freedom of movement, companies can easily and intentionally build a multilingual workforce. In cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and Madrid, it’s not unusual for companies with 50 employees to boast 10+ languages. Apart from the fun factor – who doesn’t love some friendly office banter during the World Cup? – a multilingual and diverse workforce is beneficial for business. From better customer service to actually being more productive, employees who speak multiple languages are becoming a highly valued asset for international companies.
In this article, we explore why and how multilingual employees can benefit your business.
They work more efficiently
According to recent research, the ability to speak multiple languages is positively linked with processing information at a faster speed, multitasking, and problem-solving. According to Forbes, in the process of learning and speaking additional languages, our brains form new neural pathways, meaning we’re able to sift through irrelevant information quickly. This means that multilingual employees have an advantage in roles and tasks ranging from coding and product development to business development and communications – their brains can literally forge connections that monolingual employees can’t.
Every business knows that ensuring employees are as productive as possible is key to a healthy bottom line. Multilingual staff can multitask effectively and work faster than the typical employee, meaning that a business that hires employees who can hold a conversation in four languages is likely to be more productive overall.
They are more culturally aware
These days, even if a business isn’t explicitly international, it’s likely that they’ll have customers, partners, or a professional network elsewhere in the world. This can sometimes bring about communication issues that stem from a lack of cultural awareness. If your business is made up of employees who can only speak one language, it’s difficult for them to put themselves in the shoes of people from other cultures. Part of successful communication is the ability to empathise with other people and understand their points of view – and this is a skill that comes naturally to bilingual employees.
People who speak more than one language are more likely to have grown up or lived in multiple countries, exposing them to all types of people, values and cultures. This cultural awareness is not a skill that can easily be taught: rather, it’s a soft skill that people pick up from their surroundings. If your company works with international customers, suppliers or partners, multilingual employees will help keep communication problems at bay.
They can support international growth
If your business is looking to expand internationally, multilingual employees will help you achieve that goal in a number of ways. More obviously, multilingual employees can communicate with potential new business partners abroad in their native language, facilitating more successful discussions. These employees are also able to access information in the local language, whether that’s in the form of attending conferences, reading articles, or watching videos. This information can be critical for successful international expansion, and can also be used for benchmarking and analysing your competitors on an international scale.
The same goes for market research: let’s say your business wants to expand into Poland. It’s far more practical for Polish-speaking employees to conduct market research on your company’s behalf – other employees would not be able to access the same resources. Multilingual employees are also likely to have extensive networks abroad that could aid with business development, whether that’s in Barcelona, Rio or Tokyo.
Integrating multilingual employees
There are endless benefits to hiring a multilingual workforce, but when onboarding a diverse group of people, there’s one area to be particularly aware of: linguistic or cultural misunderstandings.
For people who speak multiple languages, there are sometimes expressions, comments, or jokes that get lost in translation, leading to miscommunications. The Dutch are known for their directness, which to British employees could be perceived as abruptness. Likewise, expressions in one language could translate differently in another, meaning a throwaway comment is taken as an insult. These linguistic quirks can usually be written off with some humour, but it’s important that all employees – multilingual or otherwise – are aware and sensitive to the differences.