Monday Mornings with Madison

The Business Benefits of Bilingual Employees

Language – written and spoken — is the primary tool people use to communicate.  While babies are not born speaking, they begin to acquire language skills relatively shortly after birth.  By about one year old, babies are babbling and saying some words, and by two years of age most toddlers are learning new words daily and starting to form sentences.  Based on the results of over 2 million people testing their vocabulary on, by age 9, the average American test-taker already has a vocabulary of 10,000 words and most American adult test-takers have vocabularies ranging from 20,000-35,000 words.  That is for Americans learning one language:  English.

It is generally believed that a person with a large vocabulary is better able to communicate with others, and that is usually a sign of intellect.  If language is tied to intelligence, then it stands to reason that someone with the ability to speak more than one language would thus have an even larger overall vocabulary and would be even better able to communicate with others.  Yet, there has been a great deal of debate in the U.S. over the years regarding teaching and speaking “English only”.  Indeed, only 19.7% of Americans speak more than one language, versus 56% of Europeans.   Looking at this issue strictly from a business standpoint, it appears that having bilingual or multilingual employees is good for business.   Recent research shows that being able to speak more than one language is not only useful to businesses in places with a lot of diversity, it also makes for better – as in more talented – employees even in places where everyone speaks English.

The Advantages of Multilingual  Workers

There are a number of ways in which having employees that speak more than one language is good for business.   It is useful not just for dealing with clients or vendors that speak another language – although that is the most obvious benefit.   Recent research shows that bilingual staff has additional cognitive abilities that unilingual employees do not possess.   Being bilingual, it turns out, makes a person smarter.  Learning a second language can have a profound effect on the brain.  It improves cognitive skills not related to language and even shields against dementia in old age.  That means that businesses that want to hire the smartest employees can start by looking for bilingual employees.

1. Bilingual employees focus and refocus better.

In many ways, the real trick to speaking two languages consists in managing not to speak one of those languages at a given moment — which is fundamentally a feat of paying attention.

Saying “Good morning” to a coworker and then turning to a client and saying “Boker Tov” (in Hebrew) requires skills called “inhibition” and “task switching.”  Or to ask for a “Contrato” (in Spanish) instead of a Contract means refraining from continuing to speak in one language (inhibition) and switching tasks to speak in another language.  These skills are subsets of an ability called executive function.

Studies show that people who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of executive function.  It seems that, by learning a second language, bilingual people are then better able to pay focused attention without being distracted.  It also improves their ability to switch from one task to another.  The brain’s executive function also directs the attention processes used for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. In addition to ignoring distractions to stay focused and switching attention willfully from one thing to another, it also helps hold information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Moreover, studies have also shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.   The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals seems to be a heightened ability to monitor the environment.

2.  Bilingual employees are generally smarter.

If better students in school make for better employees later in life, then bilingual education seems to hold the key to success.  After reviewing eight million student records in six states and 37 school districts, Professor Emeritus Wayne Thomas and Professor Virginia Collier of George Mason University in Virginia found that dual-language students had higher test scores, better attendance, fewer behavioral problems and higher parental involvement than students who were in English-only classrooms.

Why?  There is ample evidence that in a bilingual person’s brain both language systems are active even when using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers have found, is a help, not a hindrance.  It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the brain a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.  These cognitive benefits carry forward into life beyond school into the world of work.

These heightened abilities for bilinguals over monolinguals have been found in studies all over the world.  In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, researchers in Spain found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.  What business doesn’t want employees who are more cognitively efficient?

3.  Bilinguals are more empathetic.

Because people who speak more than one language constantly have to monitor the environment for changes in language and cues as to when to speak which language, bilinguals are also more empathetic.   They are trained to be sensitive to social cues about how to communicate with each person and are therefore more adept at identifying the best way to relate to each person.  In any business where sales and customer service are important – and let’s face it, in what business aren’t sales and customer service vitally important – having highly empathetic employees is essential for connecting with clients.

4.  Bilinguals have mental clarity longer in life.

The benefits of speaking two or more languages extend into an employee’s twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.  The higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset of dementia.  Given that people are living longer and working into their 70s, having sharp mental acuity is a distinct benefit for businesses and senior employees alike.

Never Too Late to Learn and Never Too Many Languages.

So, is it too late for monolingual employees to learn a second language?  No!  The good news is that the benefits of learning a second language seem to extend throughout a person’s lifetime, and anyone can learn a second language (although it may be very hard to achieve total fluency of an additional language if learning it as an adult).

For those who already speak two languages, there are benefits to learning a third language.  The more languages a person learns, the smarter the person becomes! And the work of learning languages builds on itself.  In learning a second language, a person acquires the skills that make it easier to learn a third language.  It also helps a person improve his native language skills. By studying French or German, for example, an American would actually end up improving his English!

Beyond the U.S., other countries have established progressive initiatives to make their workforce more multilingual to improve their economic advantages.  That hasn’t happened in the U.S. yet perhaps because business leaders see English as the dominant language globally.  But English is not the most widely spoken language in the world; Mandarin is.

Foreign Language Instruction:  A New Perk!

To remain globally competitive, businesses need to embrace multilingualism in the workplace.   Indeed, nearly 80% of business leaders surveyed believe their overall business would increase notably if they had more internationally competent employees on staff.  Currently, the U.S. sold 1,204 Billion dollars’ worth of goods to consumers in foreign countries, most of whom do not speak English.  Companies that want to help themselves and their employees might consider offering lunchtime language instruction as a perk.   Group instruction is more affordable and motivating.   And this advice is not just for rank and file employees.  Leaders would do well to consider picking up a new language.  Many top CEOs globally speak more than one language.  Steve Jobs, Apple founder, spoke fluent English and Armenian.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook speaks fluent English and Mandarin.   Media mogul Michael Bloomberg speaks English and Spanish.  And Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestle, is a polyglot who speaks Dutch, French, English, Spanish, French and German.  In fact, according to Bulcke, “Being multilingual creates a stronger connection with peers, employees, and consumers, which is critical for a global business like ours.”

Quote of the Week

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” Frank Smith


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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