Academic journal article Management International Review

The Importance of Language in Global Teams: A Linguistic Perspective

Academic journal article Management International Review

The Importance of Language in Global Teams: A Linguistic Perspective

Article excerpt

Abstract and Key Results

* Often one of the main problems faced in global teams is that one or more of the team members will need to use a foreign language. This can cause communication difficulties and hinder the performance of global teams.

* We discuss in this paper how research in linguistics can help further research on these difficulties in global teams, giving examples of different types of challenges and their implications. Linguistic analysis can enrich our theories about global team management and improve management practice of global teams.

Key Words

Language, Linguistics, Global Teams, Cross-Cultural Management


There are potentially many sources of diversity in teams (Milliken/Martins 1996) but one of the clearest distinguishing features of global teams is that team members are drawn from different countries and will often speak different languages. This obviously can cause communication difficulties (Marschan et al. 1997, Monks 1996, Feely/Harzing 2003). The impact of communication on team performance has also long been recognized (Anderson 1983, Fiedler 1966, Walsh et al. 1988). However, despite these previous findings, research on the role of language in global teams is surprisingly limited.

We discuss in this paper the problem of language in global teams and how research in linguistics may help further research on global team management. First, we briefly review the literature on communication in global teams. Secondly, we briefly introduce some basic linguistic theories and discuss the implications for research and practice of global team management.

Communication in Global Teams

The importance of communication in teams has been well researched for over thirty years. One of the most common reasons for global teams is to leverage the knowledge and skills of diverse team members (Lagerstrom/Andersson 2003). In skilled tasks, a team with a diverse skill set that is able to coordinate those skills will generally outperform teams that lack certain skills or are unable to coordinate them successfully. For instance in decision-making, research suggests that diversity in membership increases the number of solutions offered and alternatives considered. On the other hand, diversity of knowledge and skills can also present obstacles that result in decreased performance (Hoffman 1965, 1979, Hackman/Morris 1975, Rigby 1987, Wanous/Youtz 1986, Kirchmeyer/Cohen 1992). Nevertheless, other studies suggest that despite these problems, team diversity can lead to better performance if adequate communication mechanisms are established (Anderson 1983, Fiedler 1966, Hirakawa 1980, Hirakawa/Pace 1983, Walsh et al. 1988, Larkey 1996).

If the main purpose of teams is coordinated action, then communication is the essential link between meaning and action in organizations (Donellon et al. 1986) and better communication should lead to better team performance by enabling global teams to identify and overcome differences (DiStefano/Maznevski 2000). One of the major barriers to communication in global teams is that team members speak different languages (Schweiger et al. 2003). In the majority of cases in global teams, the common language used will not be the native tongue of all the team members.

In some cases, there may not even be a common language, and team members have to rely on translators and interpreters. A number of researchers have previously noted that such language barriers can lead to problems within MNCs. For instance, Marschan et al. (1997) cited one case involving formal company communication in which one Spanish manager ignored the information received from headquarters in Finland because he could not read it and argued that such documents should be translated into Spanish. In another study, Monks (1996) cited the case of the Irish HR director of a French bank who admitted that as all documents and policies received in the office were written in French and not translated, staff in the subsidiary rarely paid them any attention. …

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