What HR Professionals Need to Know About Language Proficiency

Joanne Swan - Nov 01 2017
Published in: Ask the Experts

When a successful manager for a German manufacturing firm was selected for an international assignment in the U.S., a strong working knowledge of the English language contributed to the decision. After her initial excitement about her new role, however, she quickly found that despite her vast technical skills and knowledge, colleagues and employees often failed to understand her communications, requiring additional calls and emails to clarify her points. She was working longer hours and missing deadlines. Her new boss and clients were noticing. It seemed that personal coaching would be necessary. 

The Fluency Gap 

Accomplished professionals are usually top targets for international assignments, and mastery of the host country’s language is a plus. Often, however, there is a gap between technical mastery and what an individual can actually comprehend and communicate. That gap can lead to miscommunication, impacting an assignee’s effectiveness and, ultimately, the success of the assignment. 

While many relocation policies include “survival skills” language training, more is typically required to ensure an assignee’s leadership and management capability. An individual who exemplifies technical mastery of a language (grammar, vocabulary, fluidity) may well be missing the nuances involved in integrating that language with social- and business-related intercultural knowledge that will allow them to truly express—and understand—what is intended in communications. 

What Can Help

An informal survey of corporate advanced English learners conducted by one of our tenured leadership and language coaches identified issues with language learning that, while not necessarily a surprise for the experienced coach, can definitely be a surprise for companies and assignees. While most of these employees had been assigned to U.S. positions primarily because they spoke English, the survey results confirmed that most language students understood only about 60 percent of what was said during meetings, with one-on-one training, they grew to understand 80 to 85 percent in about four to six months, and

those without training might achieve only close to a 70 percent understanding over a much longer period of time. 

If assignees miss out on vital communications, their ability to collaborate, influence, and achieve results is negatively impacted. In turn, companies stand to lose productivity and opportunities, and even suffer damage to their reputations from failed assignments, along with an unnecessary loss of talent. 

Thankfully, personal coaching turned the German manager’s assignment around. Her language coach identified and addressed the employee’s cultural, communication, and language gaps. The manager began communicating clearly and with more confidence, leading to noticeable improvement in her interactions and their outcomes, and giving her more time to focus on her assignment objectives.

Despite appearances, perceived proficiency in a language isn’t a reliable measure of fluency. When a reputable language trainer provides quality coaching to even the most advanced assignees who speak a second language, those employees are empowered with the tools they need to succeed, which is smart business for everyone.