Language Lessons

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Si puede leer esto, podría ayudarle en el éxito de sus negocios.

If you can read this, it might help your business prospects.

English is the lingua franca of worldwide business, of that there is little doubt. According to U.K.-based The Economist, more than 1 billion people speak English worldwide, despite only about 330 million of them having it as a first language. “We’re fortunate that a lot of the world speaks and operates in English,” acknowledges Michael Dalby, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber.

Still, he says, foreign language lessons and cultural experience are of growing value to Central Ohio businesses, especially as emerging countries’ middle classes grow and more companies seek to put their products and services in front of them. Consider this: Even though 1 billion people around the globe speak English, that leaves almost 6 billion who don’t.

“With the growth of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) economies, the balance of power has changed and the economic primacy of the countries where English is a native language can no longer be taken for granted,” opined an article in the October 2010 edition of the Journal of Business Communication.

As a result, U.S. companies would be wise to invest time and money into learning about their business partners abroad. “There’s less of a willingness around the world to do business exclusively the American way. If you’re really going to be a global player, then you must have global staff. That includes foreign language and culture skills,” Dalby says. “The chamber is seeing more Central Ohio companies become more cognizant of that.”

International Trade

One in five U.S. jobs is tied to international trade—and that proportion is likely to increase, according to a 2010 policy brief from the National Education Association. Businesses have taken note.

Just as Central Ohio companies have set up outposts in other countries, foreign businesses have—or are considering—locations here. As director of global markets for Columbus2020, Deborah Scherer works with companies located outside the United States to encourage them to consider locating facilities in the Columbus region.

“I wouldn’t say they necessarily come out and say, ‘We want someone with language capabilities,’ ” Scherer says. “I have heard employers—and employers who are already located in the region—say … that they’re always looking for somebody who’s globally competent. And so certainly included in ‘global competence’ would be understanding and speaking a foreign language.”

Foreign-owned companies employ more than 32,000 individuals in the Columbus region, says Scherer. “Japan is, by far, our largest international investor in the region. The U.K. is second. Canada is third. Germany is fourth. Switzerland and France are tied for fifth.”

New Albany-based Commercial Vehicle Group (CVG), which supplies parts for trucks and other vehicles, was motivated to pursue foreign language instruction because of its existing reach as well as interest in future expansions. “CVG already has a global presence and further geographic diversity is a key component of our strategic plan which continuously causes us to rethink our business language training needs and our employee communication strategies,” says Laura Macias, vice president of corporate human resources, via email.

In addition to employing workers in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, CVG has employees in Mexico, China, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and India, she says. “We are also looking at development opportunities in Brazil.” Language skills, she says, are not limited to a particular job description or area of the business. “The need to communicate with our existing employees around the world touches nearly everyone in our organization and we’re identifying an emerging need for broader language skills for our business development resources.”

Domestic Value

It’s not just doing business abroad that motivates companies to seek foreign language instruction. Sometimes it’s the need to serve and work with non-native English speakers here in the United States.

Recently, a construction company approached the Language Institute at Columbus State Community College, part of CSCC’s Office of Workforce Development, for help; many of their supervisors didn’t speak Spanish, but most of their laborers do.

CSCC conducted classes on the company’s behalf, says Language Institute supervisor Tara Narcross. “The managers needed to learn Spanish and the workers needed to learn English as a second language. In the classroom, we put them together for conversation time once a week. The result was amazing. It went beyond language skills and really enhanced the communications between the two groups,” she says.

Several years ago, the Ohio State Highway Patrol brought in CSCC instructors to teach its cadets Spanish basics, says spokeswoman Lt. Anne Ralston. More recently, it has made use of native-speaking law enforcement officers to teach “survival Spanish.” The instruction is “more of a practical application of another language that would be important for law enforcement officers to utilize,” Ralston says.

Safelite AutoGlass has sought bilingual workers to serve the 15 million customers who contact its call centers annually as well as for Safelite Solutions, a division that handles auto glass claims on behalf of insurance companies. The two divisions are staffed separately and operate with different phone scripts. But in both cases, “Employees need language skills to provide customer service,” says Brian O’Mara, Safelite’s vice president of national call centers.

“We’ve seen the diversity in the languages grow as our volume has grown. We must be in tune and in touch with the demands of our callers, so they’re confident and comfortable doing business with us,” O’Mara says. Safelite has call center staffers fluent in Spanish; for other languages, it often relies on a third-party interpretation company to translate.

Available Resources

Columbus State’s Language Institute offers general language and culture classes in Spanish, Somali and French; it plans to introduce Arabic this summer. Classes cost $100 per student. (Basic English, for those learning English as a second language, is a longer class and costs $170.) Companies may foot the bill for employees’ coursework, Narcross says: “Sometimes it’s a reimbursable expense, depending on the policies and training budget.”

Narcross says the noncredit courses are intended to provide a beginner’s level of conversational skill and cultural understanding. Upon course completion, students should be able to ask for and provide basic information as well as express simple statements on a variety of topics.

CSCC’s other offerings include a relaunched Spanish for health-care workers class as well as customized on-site training. “If a company needs a language beyond our open enrollment offerings, we have a pool of instructors that can create and adjust the curriculum to their needs,” Narcross says.

Representatives of Franklin, Otterbein and Ohio Wesleyan universities say their institutions do not offer foreign language instruction on a noncredit basis. Ohio State University used to offer such courses through its Office of Continuing Education, but no longer does so since the office was revamped. “When a company is looking for foreign language instruction, they now go to the department for that language to get the instructional assistance they need,” says Jay Johnson, the office’s acting director.

Language instruction also is available from private companies. Tonya Stalnaker-Tiggett is the owner of Speak Our Language, which specializes in Spanish-language immersion classes using trained instructors. Over a 16-hour group course (which costs $2,000 to $8,000, depending on the number of hours and level of customization), students develop the ability to speak with a client for 10 to 30 minutes at a time.

While they won’t be speaking perfect Spanish, “The point, I would say, is the person understands you, you’re able to transact business successfully—again, not complex business, we’re saying basic business transactions: greetings, helping the customer, so they have someone who understands what their need is,” Stalnaker-Tiggett says.

CVG is “just starting to explore business language training options,” Macias writes. In the last 12 months, the company has explored Spanish-language learning software, scheduled employees for off-site Portuguese immersion programs and solicited quotes for on-site introductory Chinese language instruction. “This is a fairly new initiative for us, but one that is becoming increasingly critical to our business,” she says.

CVG is also making use of employees’ existing language skills. Recently, it has begun to identify employees who “are fluent in a targeted language and might be interested in joining a project team as a translator,” Macias says.

Safelite has pursued various means to land its bilingual workers, O’Mara says. In addition to advertising in foreign-language publications, Safelite contacts Ohio State University professors and students in advanced language classes for recruiting purposes. “For every person we employ, we identify the primary and any secondary languages they speak. We have employees on staff who speak Somali, for example,” he says.

Multilingual managers help to ensure quality control. “We want to ensure that our foreign language customers have the same quality experience as our English-speaking customers,” O’Mara says.

Workforce of Tomorrow

Cultivating cultural competency in the workforce of tomorrow—today’s children, teens and college students—could have a big payoff for the local economy, says Patrick Terrien, president and CEO of the nonprofit Columbus Council on World Affairs.

“To go from functional in the world economy to exceptional, that’s when language and cultural acumen come into play,” he says. “The languages, you’ve got to get them when the kids are young. For companies to really benefit from this, the long-term view is to make sure the kids know another language so when they get a little older, they’ll be fluent when they come in and work. Because trying to get somebody in their 30s—20s, 40s, 50s—to learn another language at a level that’s conversational is extremely difficult.”

Such early language proficiency was the goal of Ohio Senate Bill 311, under which the State Board of Education in 2007 created the Foreign Language Advisory Council (FLAC). The council was charged with proposing a statewide foreign language implementation plan for pre-kindergarten through college, including recommendations for legislation to implement the plan by the 2014-15 school year.

“Proficiency in languages other than English and knowledge of other cultures are key to Ohio’s ability to succeed in the global economy; to collaborate on scientific research; and to solve security, environmental and health problems,” the group wrote in a 2008 report.

“Effective business is built on trust, and trust is built on communication,” says Terrien. “It’s hard to have that trust when you cannot communicate with either the person you work with, work for or who works for you. And to me, really, language is about trust. The communication is a technicality, but what it really does is create trust.”

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the April 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.