Rise of the multilingual boss creates a ‘monoglot ceiling’

Being multilingual can prove useful in "reading a room" during important meetings Keystone

Having another language can aid your brain. Not having one can hurt your promotion chances. 

This content was published on December 3, 2015 - 14:23
Andrew Hill, Financial Times

When Isabelle Allen joined KPMG in 1991, she says, the professional services group valued, promoted and rewarded those people who had deep expertise. 

“We were looking for people who were master of a task and getting better at doing the same task year on year,” says the French executive, who is now global head of sales and markets at KPMG. 

These days, the company is looking for breadth as well as depth, seeking staff “who thrive on change, people who are comfortable with ambiguity - solvers of problems that didn’t even exist two years ago”. 

Having studied the latest research into the cognitive benefits of multi­lingualism, Ms Allen wonders whether knowledge of foreign languages may be one hidden signpost pointing towards those future stars. 

“The multilingual brain might actually be better at doing business than the monolingual brain,” says Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. 

Multinational companies have long recognised the functional benefits of multilingualism as a bridge between business cultures. Not speaking other languages may even be a block to promotion these days, according to early findings from the British Academy’s Born Global research into language policy in the UK. 

“We are being told that there’s a ‘glass ceiling’ developing for monoglots within global businesses,” says Richard Hardie, who chairs UBS in London and heads the Born Global steering committee. Staff will not get into “the more rarefied atmosphere” of the senior ranks unless they have had “overseas experience, cultural awareness and probably have [another] language”. 


Increasingly, though, there are other ways to achieve operational efficiency in foreign languages. Google Translate and other machine applications seem to be eroding one justification for learning languages, by performing - adequately, if not perfectly - some of the basic functions of translation. Native English speakers can simply take advantage of the rest of the world’s desire to learn the lingua franca of international business. Even non-English speakers can avoid the wearying long route to fluency in English and take a short-cut to Globish, a system that teaches a basic working vocabulary of 1,500 words. 

If they do so, however, they may potentially miss out on the cognitive advantages of learning and speaking other languages, according to much recent scientific research. 

Researchers at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University found, for instance, that people seem to make more rational decisions in their second language - possibly because it distances them from the decision. Other benefits could include a greater ability to negotiate - because multilingual people can see others’ perspectives more easily - improved capacity to switch between tasks, and a greater focus and ability to set priorities. 

It makes no difference whether the second language is widely spoken, such as English or Hindi, or a less common language such as Gaelic, says Italian-born Prof Sorace, who is also founder of Bilingualism Matters, set up to spread science-based information about languages and language-learning. 

Languages acquired later in life can have the same effect. As well as hiring more multilinguals, companies should devote more time to training language skills, work with universities to promote the research, and support the workforce in raising multilingual families, says Prof Sorace. 

Sending English-speakers to foreign postings, she points out, “is a wonderful opportunity for the children to learn languages, rather than being protected in an English-only environment”. 

It still takes time, though, to get fluent enough in a language to find it useful in business - and linguistic ability is not a catch-all way of overcoming cultural differences in business. 

When Jo Dawson, who studied German and Swedish at Cambridge University, went to work in financial services, friends said, “You’re not using your languages - you’ve given up. Why did you bother studying?” Now an executive coach with The Alexander Partnership, she notices that senior managers with English as a second language still cannot “read” a room of native English-speakers or uncover others’ hidden agendas. They do not know “what people are really saying”, she says. 

Cultural blindness such as this may not have much to do with whether executives speak another language, says KPMG’s Ms Allen: “I’ve met a lot of people who are totally monolingual and can’t read a room.” 

A more serious concern is that time spent learning a language could be better spent acquiring other skills, some of which - such as learning to play a musical instrument - also offer proven benefits for the brain. 

Bill Anderson, a senior vice-president at Pearson English, which recently hosted, with the Financial Times, a discussion on bilingualism’s challenges and opportunities, warns that tight annual operating budgets do not allow for long-term language-learning goals. Make a “short-term commitment [to language courses] and you will get very short-term benefits”, he says. 

Pearson (until this week the parent company of the FT) is devoting energy to measuring the return on investment from the language services it sells but Mr Anderson says that clients claim an improvement in productivity of 45 hours a year for each staff member they put through English classes. Prof Sorace says: “It is not an either/or choice: having languages can benefit whatever one does.” 

Some research suggests that the ef­fects of language learning on the brain - specifically in improving multilinguals’ ability to screen out irrelevant information and set priorities - may not be as dramatic as first thought. One paper shows academic journals prefer to publish positive studies about bilingualism. 

Even so, there is no evidence that multilinguals are disadvantaged and, as they become more interested in their staff’s cognitive potential, businesses see an opportunity to reap any benefits. Ms Allen says companies have not done a good job of “harnessing the huge pool of potential of all the people around the world that are multilingual”. 

In countries where many languages and dialects are spoken - or among immigrant communities - having to know more than one tongue is sometimes regarded as a burden, rather than an asset. 

Even those countries that take bilingualism for granted - Norway or the Netherlands, for example - tend to focus on the most direct advantages. 

Where does this cognitive and cultural head-start in business leave citizens of countries that are more resolutely monolingual? 

Training in how to handle cross- border business is helpful in bridging the gap, but, referring to the UK’s position as the EU laggard in language skills, Mr Hardie warns against falling behind in the linguistic chase. 

“Others will continue to widen their language base,” he says, “but we can at least get into third gear and give a reasonable proportion of the ‘born global’ generation the chance to operate as global players.”   

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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