Are Expats Getting Lost in the Translation

By Stephen Dolainski

Feb. 1, 1997

We all know the image of the ugly American expatriate. It’s the business professional who bulldozes his or her way through another country—speaking only English and making everyone around him or her pull out their English phrase books just to keep up.

Although the ugly American image is yet another stereotype that’s shattered each and every time a U.S. businessperson goes abroad with a good knowledge of the customer’s native language, it’s still an image that’s perpetuated in the expatriate community and in other business circles. But it shouldn’t be. Not knowing the language of the land is a persistent business problem that’s holding many professionals back from reaching optimum performance during their trips abroad.

Although English is widely spoken in the global business world, the language of business, as the adage goes, is the language of the customer. Increasingly, that language may not be English. And as U.S. companies—both big and small—look for new markets outside the major foreign financial centers such as Hong Kong, Paris and Geneva, they’re beginning to realize they can’t get by with just speaking English anymore. International human resources managers, already facing many challenges associated with relocating employees out of the United States, have the added responsibility of providing some form of language training for outbound expats, a task that may not be high on everyone’s priority list.

But it should be—because companies are sending more expats to other countries than ever before, and because a better understanding of a customer’s language can translate directly into profit.

Language training for expats is critical to global business success.
The globalization process has been responsible for large numbers of Americans sent out of the country to expatriate assignments all over the world. An estimate by the New York City-based National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) puts the figure at more than 250,000 on overseas assignments currently. According to the survey “Global Relocation Trends, 1995,” conducted by the global relocation consulting firm Windham International based in New York City and the NFTC, the number of U.S. expats is expected to grow in the future.

Although these U.S.-based expatriates may bring expertise of their particular business or industry with them on assignment, they often only can communicate it in the English language. And as American companies start turning their attention to China, Mexico, Russia, Malaysia and markets outside the big foreign financial centers, something’s surely going to get lost in the translation.

“If Americans spoke other languages the way Norwegians, for example, speak English, we’d take over the world.” So says Jack Keogh, the director of client services for Mayflower International Inc.’s relocation division in Carmel, Indiana. In the global business world, U.S. business professionals—monolingual by and large—are at a disadvantage, relying on bilingual secretaries and interpreters to translate for them.

For example, using interpreters may help U.S. expats understand basic conversations with clients, but it won’t necessarily help them with the nuances of what their customers are trying to discuss. While interpreters are an important business tool, they also can be another barrier to client relationships. “Your interpreter can have a 20-minute conversation with [your client] and you’ll get a four-word answer,” says Carrie Shearer, manager of compensation for Caltex Petroleum, a Dallas-based oil company that recently tutored 300 employees in the Thai language before sending them to Thailand.

More than just words are lost, says Robin Elkins, senior manager of Bennett and Associates Inc., a relocation and cross-cultural consultation firm in Chicago that works with Fortune 500 clients and others. “English may be spoken in the office, in the workplace and in the expatriate community, but it’s not always spoken outside those environments,” says Elkins.

Employees who are about to go on an expatriate assignment must realize when they accept that assignment in another country where English isn’t the norm, that learning the basics of the country’s language should be viewed as a direct part of the assignment—not as a nice add-on skill.

And there’s often more than just business at stake. There’s also the not-so-small matter of the person simply getting around in the location they’re visiting. “If expats can’t interact with the locals in the markets and in the streets, they’re missing a lot about the thinking and character of the local people,” says Elkins. These experiences also influence expats’ ability to assess situations back at work, and they’ll often make wrong assumptions about people they’re managing.

Kevin Murphy, director of international HR for Community Energy Alternatives, Inc., a small Ridgewood, New Jersey-based power producer with 18 expat employees on assignment, says, “Language training is incredibly important. It just makes everything easier.

“In China or Latin America, English isn’t the major language, and you’re at a tremendous disadvantage if you don’t speak the language. So it makes sense to get whoever is going [there] up to speed with the language as soon as possible.” Easier said—in any language—than done. But it’s vitally important to the success of expatriate assignments.

Language training helps global business relationships thrive.
The NFTC estimates that the average one-time cost of an expatriate relocation is $60,000. Corporate language training programs need to contribute to the success of international assignments.

Says Beth Gegner, regional manager in Europe for Blanchard Training & Development Inc., which is based in San Diego, California: “If someone in a foreign country has two vendors, and one speaks the language and the other doesn’t, it’s almost guaranteed that the one who has the language skill has more of a chance to get the account than the one who doesn’t.”

Language skills, says Murphy of Community Energy Alternatives, help build the kind of teamwork needed to succeed overseas. “Once you get into a country, and you don’t have your act together as a team, you’ll find out very quickly that the people in that country will not only steal your lunch, they’ll eat it too. So you’ve got to glue [yourselves] together as a team. Part of that is picking up the language skills.”

Cementing business-related communication may be the primary objective, but it’s not necessarily the only objective. Knowing the language of the land can also help an expat feel less isolated. Shearer felt that language training was especially important when Caltex sent approximately 300 employees to a rural location in Thailand during the initial stages of building a refinery there. Because of the refinery’s remote location, not as many people would speak English as in the capital city, Bangkok.

“You could get by at work without speaking Thai,” says Shearer, “but how are you going to converse with the maid or [with a vendor] when you go to the open-air market? There’s no way to even look at a coin and know what it is, because Thai is based on Sanskrit and doesn’t look [anything] like English.”

The good news for Shearer was that she knew about the project in 1994, 18 months in advance. Caltex, which employs approximately 10,000 people worldwide, only has 250 employees in the United States. Many employees who worked on the Thailand project were Caltex workers from South Africa, Australia and other countries.

“A lot of front-end work was being done in Dallas, so we had eight or nine [people of different] nationalities working in Dallas on this project, which made it easier to organize language training for everybody,” Shearer explains.

In 1994, she contracted Berlitz to give Thai-language classes to the English-speaking employees and their spouses. A refinery can be a dangerous place, so Caltex employees also were taught to understand Thai vocabulary like “danger,” “fire,” “watch out,” words that might be shouted out in an emergency. “When people are under stress, they’re going to speak in their native language [unless trained otherwise],” says Shearer.

Learning a language in the in-between moments can be better for many soon-to-be expats then scheduled classes.

Caltex also brought 75 Thai workers to Dallas for technical training before the project commenced. They first were given a six-week, live-in immersion course in English. All together, Caltex ran 30 weeks of training.

Caltex has since decided to set up English-language training in Thailand for workers before they’re brought to Dallas for technical training. Knowing what the need is ahead of time helps employees, their managers and HR to plan on which language training program method is best for a given situation.

Typically, before any language training takes place, the expat’s personal and professional readiness for the assignment is assessed. But expats aren’t the only ones who can benefit from language training. Gegner thinks there’s also value in a company training all its employees “on a minimal level” in the language of the foreign companies it does business with. “If delegates visit the United States, they’re going to feel much more at home if [workers] here could just say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ to them.”

Helping inbound foreign national employees improve their English skills is another objective of companies like St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M Co. and Caltex. Most of 3M’s tutors are assigned to work with inbound workers already familiar with English but who want “to improve their English skills so they can be more productive on the job in St. Paul,” says Margaret Beaubien, 3M’s language services administrator.

Tutors are usually employees’ spouses, an advantage for inbound workers, says Beaubien, because “our tutors have a knowledge of how 3M works and can field questions from the foreign-service workers… and we’re providing a lot more than language instruction.”

The immersion approach usually works best.
Although tutors, classes and other methods are available sources of language training, perhaps the best place to learn a language is in it’s homeland, called “total immersion.” Because this may not always be a practical option, the next best thing is a simulated immersion program—an environment in which only the target language is spoken and the student is exposed to different accents, three-way conversations, telephone role-playing, and other clearly defined social and business situations. An intensive program like this, which can cost several thousand dollars, might comprise a predeparture three-day crash course emphasizing business and courtesy communication. For the expat who has time, the immersion approach could be the way to go.

Berlitz, based in Princeton, New Jersey, is well-known for its immersion programs. International relocation and cross-cultural consulting firms like Bennett and Associates also offer highly personalized immersion preparation that’s tailored to the expat’s international assignment.

Ideally, training can continue once the expat is at his or her destination. Bennett and Associates uses its worldwide network of resources to locate qualified tutors. Berlitz operates more than 320 language centers worldwide. According to Michael Palm, Berlitz’s North American marketing manager, curriculum, texts and instructional methods are universal (the centers aren’t franchised), offering what might be called a seamless advantage: An expat can begin studying Japanese, for example, at a Berlitz center in America and then once the expat is in the assigned country, he or she can pick it up again on the same page.

Intensive predeparture training, like immersion instruction, however, may not meet a company’s needs. Kathy Hoffman, director of international human resources of the Norwalk, Connecticut-based ABB, recalls, “About five years ago, we tried some intensive courses, but reports back from the individuals said they found it better to get trained when they were actually overseas.” She agrees that it may be more motivating when you’re in the environment and can practice daily, than if you’re sitting in a classroom trying to pick up a language. ABB, the U.S. arm of a global engineering group, sends approximately 200 people all over the world each year, most of whom are project workers who don’t generally receive language training. Approximately 70 ABB employees, mostly management-level employees, receive foreign-language training once they’re in the country, says Hoffman.

But who has time?
Many expatriates who are preparing for an international assignment, however, have little or no time for lengthy, intensive language training. That’s when HR managers have to intervene with other tactics.

John Freivalds, managing director of JFA, an international public relations firm in Minneapolis, thinks he has a solution: guerrilla linguistics—learning several carefully chosen words and phrases, targeted to a country’s business culture, that an expat can speak at the appropriate moment to impress locals that he or she knows more about a language and culture than he or she really does.

Although guerrilla linguistics may bring momentary success, the tactic is only temporary and probably works best for someone who has much global experience and speaks several languages.

Self-instructional materials such as audio tapes provide a practical alternative to tutors, classroom study and guerrilla linguistics, according to Jeffrey Norton, president of Guilford, Connecticut-based Jeffrey Norton Publishers Inc., one of the country’s largest producers of self-instructional language courses. Learning a language in the in-between moments (between meetings or at lunch) or during off-hours, can be better for many busy soon-to-be expatriates than scheduled classes.

Typically, an HR person is the primary impetus behind employees using self-instructional tapes, Norton notes, and adds that inquiries about such tapes have increased in the last three years. It figures that even if soon-to-be expats can’t schedule large blocks of time to learn a new language, they probably can find snippets of time here and there to learn a language.

But beyond these language training methods, there’s another longer-term approach and philosophy that companies can adopt for language acquisition.

Make language acquisition a company goal.
International human resources professionals might consider making language acquisition more of a global company objective, rather than just a situational tactic.

At 3M’s headquarters, what began 30 years ago as informal, lunch-time get-togethers to practice German, has become a well-loved employee tradition and a unique company asset. It’s called the “Language Society.” In the beginning stages of the society, volunteer teachers were recruited from employee ranks by other employees and classes were formed. Today, at the company’s St. Paul location, the Language Society has about 1,000 members who are current or retired 3M employees or immediate family members. Classes in 17 languages, which are taught by a cadre of 70 volunteer teachers, meet once a week for 45 minutes during lunch. There’s a nominal fee ($5) to join the society, and 3M supplies texts at cost to members.

Participation in Language Society classes has no official connection with employees’ jobs, says Beaubien. Participation is voluntary, and employees are motivated by a variety of personal and professional reasons to study a foreign language.

“We have people who may be working in customer service and who are studying Spanish and they may receive calls from Latin America. They’re better able to field those calls,” says Beaubien. “3M has also opened a homepage on the Internet, and we’re receiving inquiries from all over the world, and, of course, they’re coming in different languages. The society is being contacted to translate those messages.”

Language training at 3M isn’t limited, however, to Language Society classes. Beaubien also manages a tutoring program for outbound and inbound employees, using more than 20 tutors who are either former teachers or hold ESL certification. The decision to receive language tutoring is left up to the individual employee and his or her department manager, says Beaubien.

But not all employees are eager to learn a new language—even if it will benefit them in their jobs.

Motivate expats to know their customers’ languages.
“It’s difficult,” says Brian Connelly about the Spanish classes he’s currently taking twice weekly after work. Connelly is manager of Pan-American operations for Blanchard Training & Development, a position that will require him to travel several times a year to Latin America. “I work 10 to 12 hours a day, and then go to class two times a week, and try to study in between.”

Learning a new language requires time, effort and motivation. With all the responsibilities of an international assignment, it’s difficult to take the extra time necessary to learn a new language. It’s especially hard if language learning must be reserved for unpaid, after-work hours, even if companies reimburse instructional costs (and generally, they do). More than 60 percent of the companies surveyed by Windham International and the NFTC for the “Global Relocation Trends” survey offer cross-cultural orientation to expats (which generally includes a language training component).

And, according to Elkins, about 80 percent of Bennett and Associates’ Fortune 500 clients offer language training. “But,” she says, “not many corporations encourage language fluency. They think they only need enough language to get by, because they’ll have a [bilingual] assistant or secretary or have an interpreter.”

Shearer of Caltex says that motivation is an “individual thing. You can force people to do something, but you can’t force them to learn something.” Caltex didn’t require its outbound employees to learn Thai before going to the remote refinery project, and classes were offered after work. Still, about 85 percent of the employees took the training, with 75 percent completing it. A few people did so well, Shearer arranged private tutoring lessons for them, and Caltex paid for it.

Financial incentive is a tried-and-true motivator, and one that Murphy of Community Energy Alternatives employs. “If you hire a secretary [who knows] stenography, you’ll pay that person a little more for [that] skill. So when a person picks up language skills, I want to be able to give [him or her a reward].” Murphy uses a performance appraisal submitted by the expat’s manager that includes a language-skills evaluation. No matter what language a person speaks, everyone speaks the language of money.

Murphy tries to make it as easy as possible for expats at his firm to pick up language skills. He negotiates to purchase a block of time for the year with an outside vendor to provide onsite language training at his company’s Ridgewood, New Jersey, headquarters. He schedules classes for employees during work hours. Murphy believes in continuing language training in-country, and negotiates that into his contract as well.

This is the type of long-term approach to language training that companies must adopt for future success in global business.

When all is said and done…
As cel phones and the Internet link the Earth’s remotest locations, the world grows a little bit smaller. Ironically, American businesses are realizing just how vast and culturally diverse this planet is—and that most of its inhabitants don’t speak English.

Says 3M’s Beaubien: “It’s becoming critical that companies have employees who not only have studied other languages, but also who have received some cultural training and who understand how we can do business with people who are different, how we can work together as productively as possible. That only happens when you understand another culture and the best way to do that, of course, is through language.”

As for HR professionals’ part: Language training must be an integral part of a company’s expatriate program. It can no longer be viewed as just another accent or add on. Because when your client in Mexico says, “Quiero comprar un contrato de un million,” (I want to buy a million dollar contract), the last thing you want your expat employee to say is, “Huh?”

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 32-39.

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