Working with a multilingual workforce

Canada is officially a bilingual country, but the truth is that dozens, if not hundreds, of different languages are spoken at workplaces across the nation every single day. Besides English and French, you’re likely to find employees at different businesses communicating in indigenous languages, or a wide variety of foreign languages and dialects from their ancestral homes.

In this age of interconnectivity and information, the ability to communicate in more than one language is a seriously in-demand skill. If you’re a small business owner, having multilingual employees on your staff can be a big asset.

Here’s a look at some of the ways your small business can benefit from having a multilingual workforce, as well as a few best practices for managing such a team effectively.

Benefit – A smarter, more capable staff

If the people who work for you speak more than one language, they may be better equipped to get things done. Studies have demonstrated links between multilingualism and increased attention spans, greater intelligence, a superior ability to multitask, and improved problem-solving skills. What business owner wouldn’t want more employees like that?

Benefit – A diversity of thought and ideas

Having a multilingual workforce tends to mean your staff represent a broader cross-section of the general population, boosting your team’s cultural diversity. By extension, your employees will bring a wider variety of ideas and viewpoints to the table. Not only can this can help your employees connect better with one another, it can also help your business better connect with different kinds of customers.

The language we speak can have an impact on the way we think, meaning people who speak different languages may approach the same problem in different ways. Putting employees who don’t share the same mother tongue together on a project can create an environment where distinct approaches combine to create unique, innovative outcomes.

Benefit – A pathway to international growth

Got big ideas about expanding your business overseas and selling to foreign buyers? Imagine how helpful it would be to have someone on your staff who is knowledgeable and passionate about your business and its products, and can communicate with international customers in their native language. Such communication is likely to help your business establish immediate trust and respect with potential clients in new markets.

Managing – Provide training in native languages

Help non-native English speakers get the most out of training by offering the exercises and materials in the employee’s first language whenever possible. It’s the best way to ensure the lessons are achieving the maximum intended impact, and boosts the comfort level of the employee receiving the instruction, because they know they’ll be able to perform safely and competently.

Managing – Be aware of cultural differences

Workplace culture isn’t the same in every single country. If your business employs people from diverse cultural backgrounds, they all bring unique styles and approaches. In private conversations, try to get a sense of the impact that has on their desire and ability to communicate within groups large and small, and make sure you’re not imposing a style that inhibits or discourages anyone. Encourage people to be open about concerns or potential misunderstandings to try and avoid problems before they happen.

Managing – Require a common language for safety and emergency situations

It’s okay if your staff sometimes chat among themselves in their native tongue. But when the situation is serious, everyone should know how to communicate in the mutually-agreed-upon shared language of the workplace. If someone is injured, or the business need to be evacuated because of a fire, you want to make sure nothing is being lost in translation in such critical moments.

Managing – Don’t isolate anyone

If you have employees with limited proficiency in English, or whatever the common language of your workplace is, make sure they don’t feel neglected or excluded from the conversations going on around them. Besides providing education and training to improve their fluency, good managers will also go out of their way to communicate with and include staffers whose language skills aren’t as developed. It’s a good way to demonstrate how much you value that person’s contributions to the team.

When dealing with groups of people who speak different languages and don’t all have the same proficiency in English, remember to move at a speed that doesn’t leave anyone in the dust. Whenever possible, try to communicate with a mix of written and oral materials to strengthen understanding of the message you’re trying to deliver.

Finally, spend time learning a few key phrases (or more) in the predominant languages spoken by your staff and customers – they’ll always appreciate your efforts to communicate in their mother tongue, even if it’s just a few simple pleasantries and basic exchanges.

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