Language is key to foreign assignment success

Language is key to foreign assignment success

Language is key to foreign assignment success, but each country is different and recognising those differences and adapting is essential to integration

The 21st February is International Mother Language Day

It was created to pay homage to Bangladesh’s Bhaasha Diwas or Language Martyr’s day, which was a rebellion that took place in 1947 in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to establish Bengali as a state language of Pakistan.

From 1947 to 1971, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. In 1947, the Karachi government in West Pakistan passed a law that the state language would be Urdu, which widely spoken in the western region. This did not go down well with the residents of the East, where their mother tongue was Bengali.

East Pakistanis rebelled and asked that Bengali also be recognised as a state language. The Karachi government eventually relented. However, the embers of this rebellion did not die. East Pakistanis felt that the West continued to dominate them politically and culturally.

In 1971, a war broke out between West and East Pakistan, leading to the liberation and the birth of Bangladesh.

Language and culture are intrinsic parts of our identity, and needless to say, this isn’t the only example from history that illustrates this fact. Language shapes the way we think. To know how, watch this excellent TED Talk.

Relocation and the Role of Culture and Language

For centuries, governments, missionaries, and businesses have relocated diplomats, preachers and merchants. The success of these foreign assignments has depended on good cultural fit, adaptability, and communication. 

Yet, Cultural Training and Language Lessons (the tools for successful cultural adaptation) struggle to find their rightful place in today’s Talent Mobility, and are often treated as proverbial step-children.

  • They do not always feature in relocation packages.
  • Or they are a low priority, i.e. below immigration, compensation optimisation, home-search, and household goods moves. 
  • Or they are packaged as short e-learning sessions, providing as much practical learning as one would get from watching online swimming lessons. 

There are many examples of how language and culture are essential for adaptation. 

Language is key to foreign assignment success – my personal experience of working with the French

1. Integrate

Integration is one of the most complex hurdles to cross during a foreign assignment. For instance, understanding something as simple as a greeting can require a shift in expectations.

To the French, it is essential to greet one another, be it the baker, the bus driver or the boss, even total strangers crossing paths. However, it isn’t a sign of friendship or amiability but rather a social practice.  Thus, a “Bonjour Max or Bonjour Maxine” is unlikely to transform into a relationship where Max or Maxine will invite you for a party.

Across Asia and particularly India, greetings are exchanged by people who are acquainted. So, an “Oye Mohan” is quite likely to lead to getting you invited to Mohan’s wedding.

One of the elements of cultural training is helping us to re-set expectations for better integration.

2. De-escalate

When working together in a new environment, it is but normal to experience flashpoints – be it a missed deadline or an unhappy customer. 

When working with the French, it is crucial to focus on the what to do next rather than who did it and this shows in their language.

For example, if a file was not submitted on time the French service provider is likely to say to the customer, “the file will now be submitted without any further delay. We will ensure that it does not happen in future.”

Where as in Asia, an apology needs to be conveyed and it’s important to take ownership of the error. The response would probably read as, “we apologise that the file was not submitted. I will speak to my team about it and will ensure that it does not happen in the future.”

Important – An apology will not necessarily lead to de-escalation in France. In Asia, an apology provides immediate (albeit temporary) de-escalation. What does an apology achieve in your native country? Can you think of any of differences you are aware of?

3. Celebrate

This is the culmination of a successful relocation: Acceptance and celebration of the country, its culture and language.

For instance, the French like to voice their opinions and debate those of others. While at first, this may be perceived as aggression, over time it begins to feel like nothing more than an animated exchange of ideas which can be insightful. You could soon find yourself joining in.

And if you speak their language, you are very likely to have their full attention and some of their fraternité, like in any foreign work space.

Let us hope that slowly but surely service providers find it easier to convince clients of the ROI of Cultural Training and Language Lessons. Because in reality, the answer is très simple, and the payback évident.

Where can you find language lessons

Language is key to foreign assignment success. Be sure to request that language lessons and cross-cultural training are included as part of your relocation package.

Choosing a provider such as BiCortex Languages, who specialise in assisting assignees relocating globally is a great first step. They offer face to face and online training for individuals, groups and families.

They also offer cross-cultural training, spouse support and translation services.

Many thanks to our guest author Priyamvada Majumdar.