Why do companies want English speakers

English as the working language in the company: from the kitchenette to the meeting room

With the increasing internationalization of companies in the German-speaking area, the discussion about English as a working language is a recurring topic. Managers who proceed carelessly here can fail miserably, WU scientist Miya Komori-Glatz from the Institute for English Business Communication knows. Her research is dedicated to the question of how English is developing as a working language in teams that speak English as their mother tongue and what effects the establishment of the foreign language in the workplace has with it. It showed that there are plenty of sources of error, but also hope.

Working in international teams, traveling, speaking several languages ​​- for many people this is part of everyday working life. But not everyone finds it easy to deal with a foreign language like English as a working language. “The changeover within a company from German as the living language to English is a major change and is difficult for many employees,” says Miya Komori-Glatz, researcher at the WU Institute for English Business Communication. “Anyone who wants English to become the holistic working language in his or her company needs a professional concept. Because hardly any company would like to have long-term communication problems between employees. "

Opportunity and challenge for teams

In her research, Komori-Glatz devoted herself to a synthesis of economic and linguistic publications and developed a framework that reveals the relevant issues and areas in the company when establishing English. "The focus is always on the question of how all employees can be reached by language and information barriers avoided," says the scientist. It became clear that the linguistic and communicative competence in English can be a decisive power factor in the company, which - depending on the case - can result in advantages or disadvantages for the employees. “At the same time, however, we see in a further study of our own that language skills can also develop together in a team.” For this finding, Komori-Glatz observed and interviewed English-speaking working groups of students. It turns out that the groups developed their own terminology, their own vocabulary and their own communicative practices in the course of the collaboration. “The students developed together socially and professionally. A common vocabulary went hand in hand with the communication process. They have not only adapted the content, but also the way of saying something ", says Komori-Glatz." This indicates that - provided that the employees are consciously committed to it - a common, inclusive development and Learning process can arise. This is how you reach your goal successfully. "

From the tea kitchen to the meeting room

In order to actually keep all communication channels between the employees, both among themselves and with the executives and the company headquarters, the requirements are high. Flexibility to react when information does not reach everyone or barriers arise is particularly crucial here. “It does not always make sense to offer all information only in English - especially if there is not yet a uniform language level in the company. If executives want to enable communication between multicultural employees from the tea kitchen to the meeting room, it requires the flexibility to also offer information in the predominant mother tongue in order to avoid knowledge gaps and fluctuating power relations with information advantages and disadvantages ", says Komori-Glatz. "At the same time, it is important that new employees also feel comfortable in the company and are not excluded by the local language."


5 points to consider

Establishing a working language brings many pitfalls, but also many opportunities, says the scientist. “In order to optimize information flows in the company, it is especially important to recognize potential barriers and opportunities. Where are the linguistic skills of the employees? Where can so-called “language clusters”, i.e. groups of employees with a common language, form and how can that lead to advantages or disadvantages? ”Explains Komori-Glatz. And there are many other things to consider:

1.    It takes a concept.
If, for example, English is to be established as the working language, basic principles must be clarified in advance, such as when it makes sense to use English and how the stakeholders of a company can be reached.

2.    Changing a company language is extremely resource-intensive.
Documents have to be translated, everything has to be confirmed or checked, languages ​​cannot be learned quickly. Unfortunately, general language training is often not enough: The training must be tailored specifically to the industry, the company and even your own activity.

3.    Beware of shadow hierarchies!
So-called "language nodes", multilingual employees, are a valuable resource for conveying information directly and in an understandable manner. It becomes difficult, however, when shadow hierarchies develop as a result and the company becomes too dependent on "language nodes" because they have more power than their own function entails.

4.    Information flows must be observed and, if necessary, promoted innovatively. Obtaining feedback on a regular basis is important to ensure that the (correct) information is received. Written preparation for meetings or time for brainstorming in smaller groups helps colleagues with less pronounced language skills who need more time or linguistic aids to express their ideas and contribute.

5.    Foreign language skills beyond English are always an advantage.
Even if English is the working language, multilingualism promotes informal information flows and the relationship level. Several studies have shown that even very little knowledge of the language of the business partner contributes to trust.

To the studies:

Komori-Glatz, Miya and Schmidt-Unterberger, Barbara. (2018): English-medium business education: creating the international managers of tomorrow, today? In: Sherman, Tamah & Jiří Nekvapil (Eds.), English in Business and Commerce: Interactions and Policies. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 310-334.

Komori- Glatz, Miya (2018) Conceptualizing English as a business lingua franca (BELF). European Journal of International Management 12(1/2), 46-61.

Komori- Glatz, Miya (2017): (B) ELF in multicultural student teamwork.Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 6(1), 83-109.


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