Language Strategy


MANILA, Philippines - Every company, regardless of where they are located, needs a language strategy to facilitate communication across global networks encompassing employees, suppliers, and customers. Writing in Harvard Business Review this month, Harvard Business School assistant professor in Organizational Behavior Tsedal Neeley argues that because English is the global language of business, industry leaders are making it the default corporate language as well.

"More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language," Prof. Neeley says. They include Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing. And those are "just a few" of the companies" attempting "to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors."

What about cultural heritage and identity? Prof. Neeley provides two perspectives. The first is that companies have little choice in a global economy but to adopt English because one out of four people worldwide speak the language - 1.75 billion. And English is the fastest-spreading language in human history. "Companies must overcome language barriers - and English will almost always be the common ground, at least for now," Prof. Neeley concludes.

He cites an example involving two French companies, probably because the French as everyone knows are as culturally sensitive as they come, to the point of banning English idioms from television, motion pictures, and advertising. Imagine, he suggests, two teams from the two French companies meeting in Paris. The client company has multinational operations, and pulls in key decisions makers from around the world for the meeting.

Unfortunately, the selling team speaks nothing but French, and so the decision makers on the client's team can't understand the discussion. Sound farfetched? "This happened at one company I worked with," Prof. Neeley recalls. "Sitting together in Paris, employees of those two French companies couldn't close a deal because the people in the room couldn't communicate. It was a shocking wake-up call."

The Japanese come close and probably surpass the French in some aspects of cultural sensitivity, but that didn't stop the CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, from mandating that 7,100 Japanese employees adopt English as the company's language of business. He gave them two years to demonstrate competence on a formal scoring system. Those who failed - the two years was up in March - risked demotion or dismissal.

Mr. Mikitani undoubtedly knew that the Japanese are among the poorest speakers in English in the world. In 2009, the year before the innovative CEO mandated the use of English throughout Rakuten - Japan's largest online marketplace - Japanese scored the lowest among 34 advanced economies on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which all international students who intend to study in the United States must take. …

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