As international teams become increasingly common, companies need ways to help their employees from different countries understand each other, in terms of both language and culture. Too often, companies decide that sending employees abroad — either for training or for a longer assignment — will automatically create language and cultural fluency.

While studying or working abroad can be a part of building fluency, it’s no guarantee of it. Let’s go a little deeper on this topic so you can make the best decisions on improving your employees’ fluency.

Fluency Doesn’t Just Happen

We’ll just send the employees there and they’ll pick up the language and the culture.

I’ve heard that so many times it’s making me a little crazy. Neither language fluency nor cultural fluency magically happens when someone is within the borders of another country. It’s actually extremely easy to avoid fluency.

A couple of examples:

  1. A Fortune 100 car manufacturer sent 120 families to the U.S. for 1-2 years each. They hoped that this would allow teams from the company’s two headquarters to learn from each other. What happened? Well, the employees who relocated to the U.S. ate lunch together and hung out after work together. Their spouses became friends and their kids played together on the weekends. In other words, they interacted mostly with people like themselves – just as they would have back home.Of course, the relocated employees and the U.S. employees still were in meetings together and passed each other in the halls. But do you think this limited interaction was enough to create the cross-pollination of ideas that the company wanted? Was it worth it to spend $150,000 per family to relocate the employees?
  2. Another Fortune 100 company sent 10 employees to a six-month English course in Toronto. When people take group language classes, guess what typically happens: Learners find others in the class who speak their native language. It’s just human nature. The employees spent six months speaking English for two hours a day in class, but speaking in their native language at meals, on weekend trips, etc. I ask again: Was it worth it? Did the company get what it was paying for?

These examples echo my own experiences: I’ve met many people who still did not speak the local language many years after moving abroad for work. And I’m embarrassed to tell you that I myself wasted six months studying abroad in Spain clinging to my American peers — and not learning much Spanish. Lame, but true.

Becoming Fluent Requires Leaving ‘the Bubble’

My experience in Spain isn’t unique, though. Countless others have joined study abroad programs with hopes to become culturally integrated, but instead they end up completing a program or assignment that doesn’t mean much at all.

We can apply this to work situations as well. Experiences are vital to cultural fluency; they’re the key to language fluency, too. Learning a language and a culture requires more than being in a country. It requires having conversations with native speakers and immersing yourself in the culture — not staying in a bubble with your peers.

What does this mean for companies? Beyond sending employees abroad, companies also need to set the stage for conversations to happen. This doesn’t have to be costly. You could establish a volunteer work buddy system to bring people together or even volunteer work buddy families. This way, both the relocated employees and the local employees are learning cross-cultural skills in a real way.

Help Your Employees Succeed Abroad

Relocating employees, or even sending them abroad for language and cultural training, is a big investment for your company. So before your employees pack up and leave home, make sure you are setting them up for success. Think about how your training programs and international assignments will get employees interacting with their colleagues and others in their new country. When you plan carefully, they’re more likely to come home with the language and cultural fluency they need to help your business.

If you’re setting up international programs, Fluency Corp can help. To learn more, contact us for a free consultation.