Monday, February 10, 2014

Building your Organization’s Language Capacity

Steven Worth, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

“If a person who speaks three languages is called tri-lingual and a person who speaks two languages is called bi-lingual, what is a person called who speaks only one language?”—the answer, the Europeans like to tell us, is “an American!”  It is the height of irony that a nation built of immigrants from every country on the planet should be so weak in languages—the logical consequence of living on a continent where just about everyone speaks the same language.

But as our organizations increasingly push into every corner of the globe language is increasingly an issue as members and customers quite naturally prefer to do business in their own languages.  Building your organization’s language capacity is a three-step process.

Step one:  start by taking an inventory of what your staff’s current language abilities are.  Most of us would be surprised to know which languages some of the people we work next to speak, read, and write but we never had a reason to ask.  Ask people to grade their language abilities using the 0-5 grading scale below.

Language Proficiency Definitions
Proficiency Code
Speaking Definitions
Reading Definitions
0 - No Practical Proficiency
No practical speaking proficiency.
No practical reading proficiency.
1 - Elementary Proficiency
Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements
Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases
2 - Limited Working Proficiency
Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context
3 - Minimum Professional Proficiency
Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual's special field.
4 - Full Professional Proficiency
Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs.
Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.
5 - Native or Bilingual Proficiency
Equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.
Equivalent to that of an educated native.

People generally know where they rank, and they tend to do so honestly.

Step two:  determine what your priority markets are outside the US and begin consciously to include language ability among your hiring criteria—the way our competitors do in most markets around the world.  Fluent language ability is especially important because it implies an understanding also of the underlying national cultures of the language you speak, which is also a valuable asset to have within your organization.

Step three:  develop language translating and interpreting policies for your organization’s meetings and literature—including your website.  Bear in mind that this is an expensive and thankless proposition—thankless because translations are more an art than a science with people speaking the same language regularly disagreeing over the correct way to say essentially the same thing.  The best way to handle translations is to assign the people it is intended for to do it in the way that makes most sense to them.  The costs should also be handled locally so that the end users know it is incumbent on them to use these materials in ways that generate revenue while also expanding your market reach.  Policies regarding the organization’s legal liability of the literature that is published in its own name should also be addressed.

Don’t allow your organization to become a modern-day version of the Tower of Babble that could not realize its potential because of the confusion caused by people speaking different languages!  

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