In Conclusion

The Language Learning Blind Spot

Make language learning your fifth learning pillar By JOHN AMBROSE

John Ambrose

John Ambrose, former head of strategy for Skillsoft and founder of Books24x7, is president — North America and chief strategy officer of goFluent. He can be reached at


earning programs and leaders come in all shapes and sizes. However, one thing many have in common, especially in English-speaking countries, is a blind spot around the strategic value of language learning.

Let’s face it, the charter of global learning and development is pretty clear: Define learning priorities, ensure they are aligned with the business and provide a global platform to execute. Today, four major enterprise “learning pillars” exist in almost every company: IT skills, business skills, leadership skills and compliance. It’s time for language learning to be elevated as the fifth pillar.

If you hear any of the following three phrases in your organization, language learning could be a blind spot.

Everyone at our company speaks English.” Yes, English is the language of business. Yes, your company probably does a fine job screening candidates for conversational proficiency in English. However, if you are in a multinational organization that is focused on growth, up to 50 percent of your employees are in markets where English is not the native language. Sure, they can hold a conversation, but business proficiency is a significantly different standard and needs to be developed and practiced.

We just let the regions handle it.” Centralized learning programs make good sense: consistent delivery, standardization of reporting and metrics, and, of course, economies of scale. And while most other “pillars” have been centralized, language learning in many cases has not. Think of the number of countries where your company does business. Now, think of the duplication of effort managing expensive local language learning programs of varying quality.

Language learning is not strategic.” Business today is global, and growth for most companies is in non-English speaking developing markets. Further, companies pay an average of 10-15 percent more for bilingual employees, according to U.S. News & World Report. So why isn’t language strategic? The vast majority of native English speakers in your company had some language instruction at home, in high school or in college. Those latent skills sit dormant in your organization at the same time your company is paying a premium desperately trying to hire bilingual talent.

The economic downside of not treating language learning as a global strategic initiative is frightening. According to research by The Economist Intelligence Unit, 49 percent of 572 senior executives from public and private organizations worldwide believe miscommunication and messages lost in translation have inhibited major international business deals. Further, 64 percent of the executives interviewed also felt that linguistic and cultural barriers have slowed access to foreign markets. More than 86 percent believe that profits, market share and revenue would all increase significantly if their workforce was better equipped to communicate in other languages as and when required.

The downside of not treating language learning as a global strategic initiative is frightening.
The good news is that you can course correct with a five-step plan:

Evaluate rogue spend. Take a look and you will be amazed (shocked!) at how much money is still being spent on expensive classroom-based and other disparate language learning around the globe. Tally it up.

Align with your global business partners. Communicate the benefits of a centrally coordinated program that frees the business partners from redundant tasks of qualifying, procuring and maintaining many small local relationships.

Choose a truly global partner. Be sure to choose a language learning partner that has the global support in the countries that are key, i.e., China, Brazil, Mexico, Africa and Europe. By buying globally, but working with a partner with feet on the ground in key geographies, you can be assured of the critical local support needed for success.

Rally around the outcomes. Everyone loves positive results and successful KPIs. By elevating language learning to the pantheon of L&D pillars, you can extend your existing scorecards and demonstrate value back to the business.

Look beyond English. Find a vendor who can support you with a variety of business language options.

There’s never been a better time to erect a fifth pillar under your global learning program.