[lg policy] Rise of the multilingual boss creates a ‘monoglot ceiling’
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December 2, 2015 12:50 pm
Rise of the multilingual boss creates a ‘monoglot ceiling’
Having another language can aid your brain. Not having one can hurt your
When Isabelle Allen joined KPMG
<http://www.ft.com/topics/organisations/KPMG> in 1991, she says, the
professional services group valued, promoted and rewarded those people who
had deep expertise.
“We were looking for people who were master of a task and getting better at
doing the same task year on year,” says the French executive, who is now
global head of sales and markets at KPMG.
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across the web
These days, the company is looking for breadth as well as depth, seeking
staff “who thrive on change, people who are comfortable with ambiguity —
solvers of problems that didn’t even exist two years ago”.
Having studied the latest research into the cognitive benefits of
multilingualism, Ms Allen wonders whether knowledge of foreign languages
may be one hidden signpost pointing towards those future stars.
“The multilingual brain might actually be better at doing business than the
monolingual brain,” says Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental
linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.
Multinational companies have long recognised the functional benefits of
multilingualism as a bridge between business cultures. Not speaking other
languages may even be a block to promotion these days, according to early
findings from the British Academy’s Born Global research
<http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Born_Global.cfm> into language policy in
“We are being told that there’s a ‘glass ceiling’ developing for monoglots
within global businesses,” says Richard Hardie, who chairs UBS in London
and heads the Born Global steering committee. Staff will not get into “the
more rarefied atmosphere” of the senior ranks unless they have had
“overseas experience, cultural awareness and probably have [another]
Increasingly, though, there are other ways to achieve operational
efficiency in foreign languages. Google Translate
other machine applications seem to be eroding one justification for
learning languages, by performing — adequately, if not perfectly — some of
the basic functions of translation. Native English speakers can simply take
advantage of the rest of the world’s desire to learn the lingua franca of
international business. Even non-English speakers can avoid the wearying
long route to fluency in English and take a short-cut to Globish
a system that teaches a basic working vocabulary of 1,500 words.
If they do so, however, they may potentially miss out on the cognitive
advantages of learning and speaking other languages, according to much
recent scientific research.
*How to talk the talk *
• Build language training and hiring of multilingual staff into longer-term
strategic plans for executive development.
• As managers, set an example by learning and speaking other languages.
• Champion policies to support multilingual workers and language-learners.
• Include multilingualism as one attribute for members of diverse teams.
• Don’t forget the importance of written communication: develop or hire
people who can write as well as speak foreign languages.
Researchers at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University found, for instance,
that people seem to make more rational decisions
their second language — possibly because it distances them from the
decision. Other benefits could include a greater ability to negotiate —
because multilingual people can see others’ perspectives more easily
<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3593058/> — improved capacity
to switch between tasks, and a greater focus and ability to set priorities.
It makes no difference whether the second language is widely spoken, such
as English or Hindi, or a less common language such as Gaelic, says
Italian-born Prof Sorace, who is also founder of Bilingualism Matters
<http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/>, set up to spread
science-based information about languages and language-learning.
Languages acquired later in life can have the same effect. As well as
hiring more multilinguals, companies should devote more time to training
language skills, work with universities to promote the research, and
support the workforce in raising multilingual families, says Prof Sorace.
Sending English-speakers to foreign postings, she points out, “is a
wonderful opportunity for the children to learn languages, rather than
being protected in an English-only environment”.
It still takes time, though, to get fluent enough in a language to find it
useful in business — and linguistic ability is not a catch-all way of
overcoming cultural differences in business.
When Jo Dawson, who studied German and Swedish at Cambridge university,
went to work in financial services, friends said, “You’re not using your
languages — you’ve given up. Why did you bother studying?” Now an executive
coach with The Alexander Partnership, she notices that senior managers with
English as a second language still cannot “read” a room of native
English-speakers or uncover others’ hidden agendas. They do not know “what
people are really saying”, she says.
Cultural blindness such as this may not have much to do with whether
executives speak another language, says KPMG’s Ms Allen: “I’ve met a lot of
people who are totally monolingual and can’t read a room.”
A more serious concern is that time spent learning a language could be
better spent acquiring other skills, some of which — such as learning to
play a musical instrument — also offer proven benefits for the brain
Bill Anderson, a senior vice-president at Pearson English, which recently
hosted, with the Financial Times, a discussion on bilingualism’s challenges
and opportunities, warns that tight annual operating budgets do not allow
for long-term language-learning goals. Make a “short-term commitment [to
language courses] and you will get very short-term benefits”, he says.
Pearson (until this week the parent company of the FT) is devoting energy
to measuring the return on investment from the language services it sells
but Mr Anderson says that clients claim an improvement in productivity of
45 hours a year for each staff member they put through English classes.
Prof Sorace says: “It is not an either/or choice: having languages can
benefit whatever one does.”
Some research suggests that the effects of language learning on the brain
— specifically in improving multilinguals’ ability to screen out irrelevant
information and set priorities — may not be as dramatic
as first thought. One paper <http://pss.sagepub.com/content/26/1/99> shows
academic journals prefer to publish positive studies about bilingualism.
Should companies spend more on teaching foreign languages to their staff?
Even so, there is no evidence that multilinguals are disadvantaged and, as
they become more interested in their staff’s cognitive potential,
businesses see an opportunity to reap any benefits. Ms Allen says companies
have not done a good job of “harnessing the huge pool of potential of all
the people around the world that are multilingual”.
In countries where many languages and dialects are spoken — or among
immigrant communities — having to know more than one tongue is sometimes
regarded as a burden, rather than an asset.
Even those countries that take bilingualism for granted — Norway or the
Netherlands, for example — tend to focus on the most direct advantages.
Where does this cognitive and cultural head-start in business leave
citizens of countries that are more resolutely monolingual?
Training in how to handle cross-border business is helpful in bridging the
gap, but, referring to the UK’s position as the EU laggard in language
skills, Mr Hardie warns against falling behind in the linguistic chase.
“Others will continue to widen their language base,” he says, “but we can
at least get into third gear and give a reasonable proportion of the ‘born
global’ generation the chance to operate as global players.”
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