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back to index backGLOBALtalk October,  2005

Language Training 101

"Many people tend to assume that foreigners who cannot speak the local language are either stupid or gullible" - Sautters Osland, J. (1995). The Adventure of Working Abroad: Hero Tales From the Global Frontier.

Today, international work includes business travel, regular overseas commuting, short-term assignments (six months to a year), and the traditional expatriate assignment (generally two to five years). With the high cost of assignments and the critical importance of establishing solid relationships with international colleagues, it is worth taking time to learn the local language -- at whatever level possible.

In a 1997 study of more than 400 expatriates from 49 multinational companies, the importance of language skills was identified as a key component for effective performance on international assignments. Language skills were seen as critical to task performance and cultural adjustment. Further, Gardenswartz and Rowe -- authorities on diversity -- note that different language usage in the workplace is becoming more common and that being monolingual is increasingly a detriment.

Learning a language is hard work and requires both motivation and dedication. A minimum of three hours a week of focused study, in addition to homework, is required to make progress. One of the keys to learning a foreign language is being willing to make mistakes and laugh at oneself. Once an international assignee experiences the satisfaction of responding to colleagues' greetings, saying "please" and "thank you" and ordering off a menu in the local language, he or she will be more motivated to learn the language. The ability to speak a foreign language -- at whatever level – places expatriates in a position to more easily open doors of opportunity in the global marketplace.

International human resource professionals were asked if their companies provide language training for expatriate assignments and if this is important. The following are examples of their responses.

Lance Richards, Senior Director of International Human Resources at Kelly Services, takes a strong stance on the importance of language training. "I include language training in any recommendation for any sort of short-term or expatriate assignment. Regardless of the length of the assignment, whether three months or three years, people assigned overseas have got to get through at least essential levels of the local tongue. Not just for the convenience of being able to get around, but for the pure statement it makes about the importance of thinking and acting locally! Local staff pay close attention to this and they watch the expats to see who is taking the time to learn, and who's clearly just 'passing through.'"

Alan Freeman, a global human resource executive who has created and managed international assignment programs in large global organizations, always offers language training to the assignee, accompanying partner/spouse and children. The format of language training varies -- from individual sessions, including residential total immersion programs on occasion, to group lessons delivered both pre-departure and throughout the assignment. "The type and length of training are based upon the individual's organizational level, expected length of assignment, and degree to which the assignee would be required to work directly with local individuals."

In the global HR arena, training for international assignments often involves both cultural and language training, yet training strategies differ. To prepare employees and families for international assignments, the approach to language training falls into two methods: individual lessons a few hours a week -- often continued on assignment -- or immersion programs. Weekly language lessons are the more common approach, as they do not take a great deal of time. In comparison, immersion programs offer in-depth training and require significant time and monetary commitment on the part of the employer and expatriate.

Tim Dwyer, National Director of IHR Consulting at KPMG LLP, emphasizes the connection between culture and language training. "I always encourage my clients to provide both language training and cross-cultural training to their assignees and families. I don't think there should be a limit or cap to this benefit.

As long as the expat and family are interested in studying the host location's language, they should be encouraged to do so at the company's expense. Culture and language are, of course, intimately intertwined. Such training facilitates integration in the host location and helps to increase understanding of the people with whom the expatriate family will work, live and go to school."

However, not every company offers language training. Matthew Neuman, Staff HR Consultant at Saudi Aramco Oil Co., moved to Saudi Arabia a few years ago. In his case, language training was not offered. The company did not feel it was necessary because English is the official language in the office. Consequently, he and his wife took language training at their own expense to enrich their expatriate experience.

Source: Having the Edge: Language Training for U.S. Expatriates” b y Nancy R. Lockwood, SPHR, GPHR, HR Content Expert

For more information on worldwide language training programs, click here or contact Ruth Fernandes, Director, in the U.S.A. at +1 (248) 526-3312 or

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Other articles from the same issue (October,  2005).

Training Chinese knowledge workers fails
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The different management skill-sets in Germany, the U.S., and Asia
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Practical tips for protecting intellectual property in China
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Making the most of your assignment
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Multinationals revising long-term incentive programs for executives outside the U.S.
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Complying with PRC anti-bribery laws
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Many Expatriates, Many Voices: A Look Beyond the Assignees
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Global Language Training Programs
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Relocating to China: Meeting the challenges head on
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Is your business getting “Lost in Translation”?
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Language Training 101
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