How Multilingual Employees Add Value to Your Workplace
English may be the international language of business, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s the only language that matters in the workplace.
Census Bureau data from the 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) shows that over 63 million U.S. residents five years of age and older speak a language other than English at home.
That’s an increase of 3.6 million people, since similar data was recorded in 2010.
Spanish remains the most common language other than English in the U.S., but Arabic and Urdu saw the largest increases in terms of percentage of non-English speaking residents between 2010 and 2014.
At this point, more than one in five U.S. residents now speaks a foreign language at home.
If your company has global ambitions, or even just plans to expand to new markets here in the U.S., having multilingual employees can give you definite advantages over your competitors.
How will a multilingual workforce help your company from within?
Hiring multilingual employees can help your company thrive from within.
Hiring speakers of multiple languages will often mean a culturally diverse workforce. This diversity helps spark new ideas and solve problems for your company, as employees offer differing perspectives and backgrounds, working together to find solutions.
Studies have also shown that there are cognitive benefits to being bilingual.
National Institutes of Health, for example, found that bilinguals can switch between tasks faster than monolinguals, which results in an increase in productivity throughout the workday.
A study at Northwestern University also found that bilingual speakers actually process information more easily and efficiently than those who speak just one language. Researchers explain that the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which to ignore. This exercise means the brain doesn’t have to work as hard to perform cognitive tasks.
A diverse workforce that is both productive and efficient is sure to have a positive impact on achieving your company’s goals.
How will hiring multilingual employees help you expand to global markets?
Having a multilingual workforce doesn’t just have impacts for your company internally. There are also various benefits for your customers.
Employees who speak another language can be a valuable resource when you expand to markets outside the U.S., or when you are looking to market to a customer base that does not primarily speak English here in the U.S.
Someone who has taken the time to learn another language has often learned about the cultures where the language is spoken in the process. When working with clients and customers from other places, understanding a few nuances about their culture and what may or may not be important to them can make a difference in how they perceive your brand.
In addition, building a multilingual customer service department means drawing in a customer base who feels confident in their ability to do business with you. They know that if they have questions or concerns, they will be able to address them seamlessly in their native language.
When customers feel comfortable, they are more likely to buy.
Some of these customers may not be used to companies making an effort to provide a more seamless customer service experience, so being able to do so with staff members who speak their language encourages customer loyalty.
What not to expect from your multilingual staff
It may be tempting to ask your bilingual employees to do things like translate texts your company needs in another language, or to ask them to interpret for clients or customers who don’t speak English well.
However, it is important to note that unless they have a background as a professional translator or interpreter in the specific field, your employees are often not suited to handle these tasks.
Instead, it is better to place these jobs in the hands of a professional translator or interpreter to ensure that texts are translated correctly and without errors. This way, everyone’s words are interpreted in the full spirit of the message they wish to convey.
While it’s certainly easy to call on your existing bilingual staff, remember that your texts or conversations may contain specialized terminology that the employee is not familiar with.
Even if they are competent about the terminology in your field, it does not mean they have the appropriate experience to handle the tasks of translation or interpreting without error. Advanced writing skills in both languages are key to a solid translation, as are spoken language skills for interpreting.
Translation and interpreting are their own special skill sets. Just as you would not offer to build someone’s home simply because you had previously studied concepts about construction, a bilingual employee may not be the best candidate to translate Human Resources materials just because they are familiar with your company’s policies.
Instead, look to a professional translation agency to handle translation and interpreting services, since they constantly vet specialized translators and interpreters with the proper experience, education and training for these skill sets.
An employee who knows another language will likely be able to assist with smaller language-specific tasks, but it is dangerous to assume that they are as comfortable in writing as they are in speaking, or vice versa.
The two skills are quite different, and when your brand is on the line, it’s vital to get it right.
How can your company create a welcoming atmosphere for employees who speak multiple languages?
Having multilingual employees does not automatically give your company the competitive edge.
In order to reap the benefits of having a multilingual workforce, you will need to invest in hiring people with the correct skill sets and train them appropriately.
Consider having training materials and HR documents translated and localized professionally to ensure all employees are on the same page and on board with your company’s brand and mission.
Translating these types of materials will allow you to connect with your multilingual staff more effectively from the beginning.
Your work environment should also be welcoming and accommodating for all employees. You can do this by allowing employees to take days of cultural significance off from work, encouraging them to speak freely in their native languages, or even providing specific lunch or snack options for employees with dietary restrictions.
A solid multilingual workforce can really help your business thrive, so don’t forget to request feedback from your employees! They will be happy to let you know if things are as welcoming as intended and will feel empowered and appreciated as a result of you asking!