‘English only’ as the Company language: benefits and challenges

Global business – one language

As corporate companies know, the world has become a global ‘market-place’. Increasingly, businesses have to co-ordinate employees, functions and supply chains across the world. So it’s no surprise that the necessity for English as the language of business communication has also increased.

But what if your company decides to implement ‘English-only’ as its official business language, no matter where in the world you work? Whether the policy is for all employees – or only for senior and middle management to begin with – what are the benefits? – and the challenges? And how can these be managed?

An article in Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2012/05/global-business-speaks-english#comment-section ) explored this topic in-depth. It referred to the Japanese company Rakuten (an online marketplace) as an example. In 2010 its CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, believed that this ‘one-language’ policy was the only solution to achieving the company’s goal of becoming the number one internet company in the world, even though the majority of its employees were Japanese. Today, around 50% of the 7500 employees can successfully communicate internally in English, and 25% can communicate with partners and co-workers in foreign subsidiaries.


So what are the benefits?

The ability to successfully communicate with customers, suppliers and other business partners outside your country, and those who don’t share your language, enables you to:

  • Achieve growth and expansion into a wider range of markets.
  • Improve efficiency, knowledge and decision making across all divisions of your company, wherever they are based: for example, by avoiding the translation of documents into several languages.
  • Avoid bias in cross-cultural integration when mergers or acquisitions take place: for example, between a French and German company, so that the operating language is ‘neutral’.
  • Promote collaboration and cultural understanding among colleagues across different geographies.


And the challenges?

Implementing the change to a ‘one-language’ policy for non-native speakers will not be an easy one, for several reasons:

  • Self-confidence of employees is affected when they are forced to communicate in English: for example, they can feel they are ‘judged’ on their English skills as opposed to their job skills.
  • Some job requirements may change as a result of the policy, especially for senior employees: for example, if the required level of proficiency isn’t achieved, an employee can be demoted.
  • Employees can resist by reverting to their own language for important meetings and documents, or not speak at all, because they feel anxiety or a loss of ‘power’. This can alienate native English speakers or cause important information to be lost.


Ways to manage this change…

In the HBV article, the author, Tsedal Neeley, presents this framework for assessing employee response and guidelines for adopting and implementing the change, shown here:


To increase positivity in these two areas, leaders and managers can help by:

  • offering a variety of opportunities for employees to gain experience with the language: for example, through extensive and/or full-immersion language training.
  • cultivating a good attitude by being a positive role-model: for example, showing that they are trying new things and supporting their subordinates in their efforts.
  • providing verbal encouragement: for example, using simple statements like “You can do it!”
  • engaging language providers who specialize in helping employees based on their individual needs and level of proficiency, and granting employees time during the workday to devote to studying: for example, through on-line learning or self-study materials.

This transformation – both for employees and the company – will take time. But to be successful, Mikitani from Rakuten gives this advice: “CEOs need to be role-models. And stick to the programme!”

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