I recently spoke with an interpreter who had just completed an investigation. A local restoration company caught fire the night before and burned to the ground. The cause of the fire became clear after several interviews with the staff.

Though employed with the company for over a decade, one hard-working employee – with limited English proficiency – was asked to work with new chemicals and was unable to read the labels or instructions. The wrong mixture, left sitting over night, created a devastating result.

This is an extreme case, but incidents like these are not uncommon. In fact, according to an OSHA study, 1-in-4 workplace accidents are caused by the language and culture barrier.

Aside from safety challenges, employee productivity, engagement, and workplace relationships are negatively affected when employees, coworkers, and supervisors cannot communicate. So what can you do about the language barrier to improve your bottom line?

Perhaps you’ve hired a bilingual employee or two, but that person can’t be everywhere at once. Maybe you bring in an interpreter for company meetings and training sessions. These are great steps. But what about the day-to-day interactions, like giving performance feedback, discussing schedules or conducting training? It’s for these reasons you’ve decided to invest in language training, but what do you do next? There are classes out there, but where? How? What’s the best way? And what’s culture got to do with it?

Onsite vs. Offsite

There are many options out there for anyone who wants to learn another language. It can be a bit daunting to consider, so let’s boil it down to two categories: onsite and offsite training.

Onsite training is a great way to create a collaborative atmosphere and team learning experience, which helps improve trust, morale and confidence in the workplace. Onsite language training will allow you to tailor the length of the language classes, when the class will meet, and how often. When researching these programs, make sure to consider how many people can attend the class at one time, and who would you want to attend?

Define realistic expectations. How fluent or functional do you (or your employees) need to be, and in what areas? Listening and speaking skills, or reading and writing? This will inform your decision on what instruction approach to look for.

When would be the best time for a class, and how often can it meet? The more often, the better!

Make sure you ask your vendor whether they work with a private language training company, community college or other organization, if they charge per head or per class, how much materials cost and if there are instructor travel fees or other additional costs. You should also ask about discounts for multiple classes, as one class will most likely not be enough to achieve your goals.

The most common challenge to onsite training is scheduling. You’re at work, after all, and can’t have everyone in class at once. You may have to do some creative organizing if you have more than one shift of employees you’d like to learn Spanish or English. I recommend offering training in stages or finding a time in between shifts when employees can come early or stay late for class.

As the world becomes smaller and more connected the need to communicate in another language has given rise to a variety of offsite language training options. Local groups and organizations such as libraries, park districts, community colleges and private language schools offer classes, as well as electronic or online learning programs.

With all these options available, one route to consider is offering a continuing education reimbursement program. This allows your employees the freedom to choose what they feel is the best option for them. It also takes the burden of coordination off your shoulders.

This option has its challenges. For one, if you’re a business owner paying for classes and would like to be involved in the monitoring or directing progress, you may find it difficult to do so. Keep in mind that the majority of these options only offer general language instruction, as opposed to a workplace-specific alternative.

Additionally, one of the biggest hurdles involved with learning a new language is a lack of confidence, which can be overcome faster in a setting that allows for supportive team learning. If you are reimbursing for English as a second language, there are several factors that might be challenges for employees who want to take advantage of a program. For example, your employees may have family obligations after work, could be employed at a second or third job, might carpool to work, or may find a classroom experience intimidating if they’ve only completed several years of grade school in their home country.

I recommend offering an offsite training program if there are one or two individuals that can make the commute and are at a more advanced level than the rest of the group.

Finding the Best Approach

Just as there are many options for providing instruction, there are different ways to deliver language instruction and a wide variety of content that can be covered. So, which approach is best for you?

Academic. You’re probably the most familiar with this traditional approach if you have taken a language class in the past. It has a strong focus on writing, grammar and literature, and there are often long lists of vocabulary to memorize.

The Foreign Language Institute conducted a study that followed students learning languages using the academic approach. These were students with previous experience learning a foreign language that took a class for 25 hours a week and studied an additional 3 to 4 hours a day on their own. This study revealed that in order to learn languages like English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese and Romanian (Romance Languages), it took roughly 575 to 600 class hours over a period of 23 to 24 weeks to have a command of the language. That’s intense! And it’s not for all of us.

Functional. It takes much less time to learn how to speak functionally. A functional learner experiences language in context. Through interactive activities, you learn what you need to get your point across using basic phrases, simple conversations and essential, thematic vocabulary.

You may be wondering where Rosetta Stone fits into all of this. This program would fall into the functional category, as do many other electronic programs. It does a wonderful job of putting vocabulary into the context of a small sentence like, “The green car is new,” and matching that to a picture of a new, green car. However, it does not instruct in a larger context regarding how that vocabulary is used in everyday conversation.

You may be one of the many people who cringe at the academic language learning approach, remembering red marks on high school or college Spanish assignments. Even if that was your experience, it is best not to automatically discount this method. There are many different types of intelligence and learning styles. Grammar geeks who are willing to study hours on end to fully appreciate the language might feel more comfortable with this approach. What I’ve found is that this approach can provide refinement and additional confidence in highly advanced language learners.

The academic approach is not a practical or realistic solution in a workplace setting. It can cause anxiety and loss of motivation in students who have not studied a language before, who have not done well in past academic language learning experiences, or who are attending the class with specific goals in mind. It takes a long time to learn a new language by this method because it goes against the way our brains are hard-wired to learn.

Language training providers sometimes offer both approaches, but few programs strike the right balance. And what might be a good balance for person or company X may not be the best approach for person or company Y. With this in mind, it’s important that you ask the right questions when searching for a provider for a reimbursement or onsite program. Here’s a good place to start:

Is there an option to customize this course? How is it customized? Does customization cost extra? How is an individual class typically structured? For example, how long do you spend on review, introducing new content, practice and wrap-up? What focus does the instruction take? Are the majority of the activities focused on writing and grammar, or are they role-plays, conversations and reading aloud? Is the class taught in the target language?

If you’re still not sure what approach might be best, learn more about your own needs by asking yourself a few questions:
  • Do the potential class participants primarily use verbal or written communication in their roles at work?
  • In what workplace situations would it help to know some Spanish or English? Keep in mind employee-manager, manager-employee, customer service, and coworker and client interactions.
  • Ask your people! What experience do the potential class participants have with languages, and what type of learning approach do they feel would be best for them?
Write your answers and examples down, and be specific. The more you understand your needs, the better you can relay them to your vendor. The more customized the class is, the better!

Keep Culture in Mind

Whether you feel academic or functional language instruction is the right approach, it’s important that the program you choose or design includes cross-cultural perspectives. Not only is culture fun and interesting to learn about, it’s important. Not understanding why someone communicates the way they do can cause a great deal of frustration.

People’s culture is their way of life. It incorporates their inherent behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. For example, through learning some of the different ways the concept of safety is viewed in Mexico, a person studying the language and culture will know how to better utilize their skills to address the values and beliefs that lie below the surface.

These deep cultural concepts like courtesy, personal space, humor, authority, gender roles, notions of leadership, individualism vs. collectivism, and education are more often than not at the root of miscommunication.

What's Your Best Bet?

While there are strategic ways to go about designing training in order to see results, the more options that are available and the more customized you can make the training the better, because we all learn in different ways.