The Problem with Making English a Business Standard

Last Updated Nov 18, 2009 8:46 AM EST

As they become more global, companies are increasingly mandating that their employees communicate in English. Seems logical; English, which is spoken by a billion people worldwide, is the defacto lingua franca to conduct global commerce.

The problem: According to new research, the English mandate, if not handled with sensitivity, can disrupt rather than improve communication, and trigger powerful negative emotional relationships within teams.

"We found that uneven proficiency in English, the lingua franca, distrupted collaboration for both native and non-native speakers," concludes the recent working paper, Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work.

Researchers at Harvard Business School, Stanford and George Mason studied 145 members of a single company on nine project teams in the U.S., India and Germany.

Among the issues they identified:

  • Indian employees took most readily to the English mandate, reflecting its British colonoial history and English-language educational system. Not so enthused were the Germans, who found it difficult to think and articulate ideas outside of their native language. "It's like walking though jelly," one employee said. "You could walk so much easier if you could talk in German."
  • Different levels of fluency among team members contributed to personal tensions.
  • Non-native speakers fought apprehension about communicating to colleagues and superiors in a second language, and sometimes felt excluded by more fluent English speakers.
  • Native speakers felt excluded and devalued when colleagues in a country "code-switched", or dropped English to talk instead in German or Indian.
  • Employees sometimes avoided calling team members in other countries to avoid the stress of speaking in a different language.
As remedies, the paper's authors suggest managers provide high levels of psychological safety as well as individual language training for those with less developed skills.
"Building awareness of the experiences of coworkers with different language backgrounds and proficiencies and empathizing with those experiences can circumvent the negative cycle and, we believe, is an important step in ameliorating the emotional burden felt on all sides of this issue."
The report was written by Tsedal Beyene, Harvard Business School; Pamela J. Hinds, Stanford, and Catherine Durnell Cramton, George Mason.

How does your own business handle communications in different countries? Do you have to communicate to colleagues in a non-native tongue?

(Peace image by guitarhippie 29, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.