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A question of fluency

I was recently talking with a CEO of a company which operates in several countries all over the world. Not surprisingly, they use English as corporate language. But although they assume that new employees can work in English, there are differences in their fluency – and that can lead to misunderstandings, or people spending more time in communicating and understanding issues than they would in their own language.

I asked whether they tested the level of English skills when new employees were hired. It turned out that a tailored test based on the special terminology of their industry and also of management would be helpful in defining their skill level. After all, most of us would describe ourselves as fluent speakers of a language – but fluency is a very movable beast. Having spent most of my professional life writing an reading in English, I still manage to make errors of various seriousness practically every day. At times, such errors really obfuscate the meaning.

I repeat myself, but to me, the real future of the language business is in all the various new and yet even unimagined tools and solutions for employees working in a multilingual environment. As we exchange messages and develop ideas across contries, cultures and languages, we need new and faster ways to cross the language barriers. Using crowdsourcing for multilingual needs will open up interesting possibilities, just like in Google Translate where users can suggest a better translation.  Similar applications for crowdsourcing multilingual solutions inside companies and industries should proliferate.

Btw., an interesting point was made by another person responsible for training in a large global organization. He remarked that using social media in training allows them to evaluate the results better: they can tap into the conversations of the community and trough them see what people have learned and where they need to improve the training. Great idea!


  1. Kimberly McCabe

    Kaija this is so true! I currently work in two different international environments: Oshyn, Inc: and HEC Paris: In both instances, we have multilingual staff. At Oshyn, we work entirely in English and there are only small moments where a word or phrase may not be evident. It’s NOT a problem. At HEC Paris we execute an MBA program entirely in English but we actually manage the program bilingually with staff that have various proficiency levels in French and English. My mother tongue is English but all of the IT staff are mother tongue English. My CMS training was in French although everything I deploy is in English. Most of my programs are run in English but the network is in French. So I must log into the system on a QWERTY board as if I’m typing on an AZERTY. I must navigate windows and the CMS in French. Even when the the IT staff are setting up programs on my PC, frustration sets in once they install in English – because then they are struggling to find the settings to finish setup.
    I love what you are saying about using Social Media because I encourage important requests to be sent to me in written electronic form because reading gives me a few more seconds to digest and resort to if I need more clarification before going back to the sender. I would love to read more ideas on using social media to break the language barriers.

  2. Kaija Poysti

    Hi Kimberly, thanks for your comment! I liked your idea on asking for a written request, as it gives you time to think about it a bit longer, and thus help to understand it better.
    I think there will be many possibilities to use social media to cross the language barrier; will be blogging more about them. Some examples here: creating a shared multilingual terminology within a group, collaborating in creating definitions of corporate terms and expressions (here stories and examples are a great way of defining what is really meant with a term). I also noticed that many companies say that social media enabled them to find language expertise within the company that can be used e.g. to check a translated text, or write the text directly in local language.
    It will be interesting to see how multilinguality will eventually be handled. Shall we have very efficient machine translation, which allows us to become monolingual and have everything translated into our own language? Or shall the language awareness of people increase, so that more people will work in at least two languages? Even when one is not fluent in another language, I feel that increased language awareness helps to understand information in foreign languages better.
    Will be returning to this topic!

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