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Corporate lessons for adopting English as a common language

It is hard to imagine Gina Qiao, Lenovo's talkative head of human resources, at a loss for words. But when her employer announced, following its acquisition of IBM's personal computer division in 2005, that it was adopting English as the company language in place of Mandarin, she was speechless.

"It was the toughest time of my whole life," she recalls in rapid accented English, punctuated by the occasional malapropism and mixed-up tense. "I couldn't communicate. I couldn't express my ideas. Because I couldn't say anything, I just felt maybe I am not so smart."

The feelings of frustration and loss of confidence that threw Ms. Qiao off her stride are an increasingly unfortunate feature of a global marketplace that has elected English as the de facto language of international exchange. As managers create teams that straddle national borders, knit together companies that are merging and look for ways to speed up the sharing of knowhow, their attempts to impose a common language on a multilingual work force can create winners and losers.

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During a language transition, bilinguals are often called on to act as intermediaries linking headquarters and local operations, which puts them in a privileged position and can lead to job offers. But for those forced to master a whole new vocabulary and grammar just to hold down the job that they were already doing, a language change can feel like a professional step backward from which it is hard to imagine ever recovering.

"[Companies]very much underestimate the psychological stress that a language change can cause," says Rebecca Piekkari, professor of international business at Finland's Aalto University.

In some cases this may be because the cosmopolitan elites that run them speak several languages already and mistakenly assume that their subordinates do too. As an example, Prof. Piekkari cites the 1997 merger of Finland's Merita Bank and Sweden's Nordbanken, which she and her colleagues researched through employee interviews.

To help the work forces integrate, the Finnish chairman proposed that the merged business adopt Swedish − which Finns study at school – as its company language. He supposed (wrongly) that his compatriots spoke Swedish as well as he did. The result was that some of the Finns, with only rusty, schoolroom Swedish on which to get by, started avoiding situations where they feared losing face. Some kept silent in meetings, others migrated from corporate roles into the Finnish-speaking branch network and some joined competitors.

The problem was, however, eventually resolved. Following a merger with a Danish bank in 2000, the business (now known as Nordea) adopted English as its company language – which at least had the effect of putting all its Nordic employees on the same footing.

One way for employers to get a grip on how much language training they should budget for is to conduct a skills audit. The ideal, says Tsedal Neeley, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, is to test people to establish "where they are" and create a baseline against which progress can be measured.

An alternative to testing, which staff may dislike, is to invite people to rate themselves. The responses may be subjective, says Prof. Piekkari, but will probably give a better picture of a company's language capabilities than the paper qualifications recorded on employees' old school certificates.

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Building language education into the working day, organizing language clubs and exchanges can all help to boost employees' confidence. However, businesses also need to recognize – and find ways of counteracting − the prejudices that can subtly bias promotions in favour of candidates who are fluent talkers rather than fluent thinkers and able doers. Distinguishing between substance and style is part of this, says Prof. Piekkari. So is respecting different modes of communication.

At Lenovo, Ken Batty, executive director of HR and talent for western Europe, says that former IBM employees have had "to learn to be comfortable with silence." "The Chinese style is very much to pause and think ... which can be interpreted [by Westerners]as not understanding."

Using straightforward language shows consideration for non-native speakers. Thomas Balgheim, chief executive officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Argentina and Brazil at Japanese-owned NTT Data, observes that native English speakers are prone to use hard-to-grasp expressions and talk too quickly. To make his company's English-language internal briefings an easier read for non-native speakers, he asks Germans and Italians to produce the first draft because their simple sentences and plain vocabulary meet the needs of a multicultural work force.

"Our common language is English, but it's an easy-speaking English," says Mr. Balgheim, whose homegrown experiments might be seen as a DIY take on Globish, a stripped-down form of English for international business people, marketed by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a former IBM executive.

Ms. Qiao reached a turning point when she realized that to hold people's attention she needed to be understood in English, and not word-perfect. "To begin with, life was exhausting," she says. "Now, if [I am giving a presentation]and someone asks a question that I don't understand, I don't worry. I just ask the moderator to help me."

But what if employees are so daunted by the seeming enormity of the task before them that they mentally disengage?

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One company grappling with the psychology of learning is Rakuten, the Japanese online retailer. For the past two years, the business has been immersed in a breakneck program, known as "Englishnization," to migrate from Japanese to English by 2012. Although controversial – employees take mandatory tests and are denied promotion until they reach the required standard – the program also uses motivational management techniques to reassure strugglers that their bosses have faith in them.

"If people don't hit their target scores, they just go on studying," says Koichi Noda, Rakuten's head of corporate planning. "As their manager, my role is to make them believe that if they [keep going]they can do it."

Could Western multinationals learn from "Englishnization?" As the author of a case study on Rakuten, Prof. Neeley doubts that Western work forces would put up with such authoritarian methods. But she likes the positive psychology. "If you keep on saying 'you can do it,' it's amazing how much that makes people feel, 'maybe I can.'"

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