If you manage large groups of immigrants, refugees or foreign workers (nonnative speakers, or NNS), you might not know it but a big part of your job is actually language management. By language management, I don’t just mean offering English as a Second Language (ESL) training to the NNS (although this is something that many managers of linguistically diverse workforces quickly decide to do). Unfortunately, however, many ESL programs achieve limited success for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it does little good to offer an expensive ESL training program if, the minute the NNS try to use what they’ve learned, with customers, co-workers or managers, they are met with impatience and insult. If this is what they are met with, the learning process will shut down immediately. In addition, many NNS feel that their English is perfectly adequate and they resent being forced into English classes that they don’t think they need. Moreover, American-born workers sometimes resent the special attention being offered to the NNS, feeling that the NNS are being given preferential treatment while the American worker is ignored. And finally, managers can become frustrated when they discover that the language-learning process takes much longer than they anticipated, and is becoming an ongoing drain on resources that shows few immediate results. Issues like these – and many, many others – need to be addressed before managers will see any language improvement in their workplaces.
It is important to realize that ESL instruction is not an easy fix for two important reasons: 1) It takes years to learn a new language and most learners will never learn the new language perfectly. They will probably continue to make grammatical mistakes and pronunciation mistakes for their entire lives. While upper management may be able to accept this fact in exchange for an otherwise hardworking and competent workforce, many co-workers, middle managers and customers never do accept the NNS’ imperfect English, and the complaints that they voice about them are neverending; and 2) In order to have the best chance of learning English well, the NNS really need the cooperation and support of these same co-workers, middle managers and customers because no one has ever learned a new language without the help and assistance of the people who speak that language. This means the people that they interact with on a daily basis, not just their ESL teachers. In other words, language learning does not take place in a vacuum, and the success of ESL training is not dependent only on the language learner. This is where language management comes in because, in order to effectively integrate NNS into the workplace, managers need to create a workplace environment that encourages the risk-taking necessary for learning and using a new language, as well as an environment that promotes good communication between NNS employees and their American co-workers, managers and customers.
Creating the proper environment is key because, in addition to learning English, the manager also wants the NNS employees to actually USE English at work: this is perhaps the most critical issue facing multilingual workplaces. Many language trainers and employers assume – wrongly – that if they can improve workers’ ability to speak English well, the NNS will no longer want to speak their native languages at work. However, even immigrants and refugees who can speak English very well, still use their native languages at work when speaking to other immigrants and refugees. They do so because there is strong pressure from the immigrant community to speak the native language among themselves. Just imagine yourself in their position. Can you imagine moving to a foreign country (China, for example), trying to adapt to the Chinese culture and language, and then meeting another American there? What are the chances you would speak Chinese with that American? The odds are that you will revert to English not just because it’s easier, but also because it would be incredibly unnatural and awkward and inefficient to speak Chinese with an American, not to mention the fact that you would probably estrange that person by choosing to communicate in a foreign language. Consider what motivation you would need in order to make a different language choice.
In conclusion, employers need to stop viewing language learning as solely the responsibility of the NNS, and language training as solely for the benefit of the NNS. Instead, support for language learning needs to become part of the team ethic, and everyone in the company needs to get involved in the process of supporting and encouraging the NNS in their language-learning process. In that process, language management does more than simply improve NNS’ English. A successful language management program will also change the communication dynamics throughout the workforce, improving overall teamwork and productivity.