In an increasingly global economy, having staff who can effectively communicate across borders and cultural spheres can be beneficial for engaging with customers, business partners, and local staff. Even within the United States, companies recognize the benefits of bilingual and multilingual staff in an increasingly diverse nation where English is not always the first language of customers and partners.
Despite these benefits, employers don’t necessarily have a wealth of bilingual or multilingual talent available to them. The labor market in general is extremely tight at the moment, and recruiters have to consider the relative value of many desirable skills and experiences in filling open positions. Moreover, as new technologies like artificial intelligence and natural language recognition continue to improve, the value of multilingual humans relative to the best-available translation technology may shift.
So, just how valuable is having a bilingual or multilingual employee on staff? We reached out to business leaders and experts to get their thoughts on this intriguing recruitment question.
The Impact of Geography and Market
Of course, some industries and locales make multilingual staff more appealing or necessary than others, and companies that routinely do business in areas where languages other than English are widely spoken will have a greater need for such staff.
“Bilingual staff are a nice-to-have, but prohibitively expensive for a lot of companies,” says David Patterson-Cole, CEO of Moonchaser. “In some regions with heavily-minority populations it’s almost expected, such as large swaths of the Southwest where Spanish is the preferred tongue.” But, he adds, “It’s tough to justify keeping a translator on-staff for the occasional client who speaks a less popular language. Even contractors or on-call staff can be expensive.”
Multilingualism as a Strategy for Inclusiveness
Even when multilingualism isn’t strictly necessary for a business’s core operations, the company may find that embracing and valuing staff who speak multiple languages may be a boon to its broader diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. These goals, in turn, help attract and engage a wide range of not only staff but also customers.
“As an entrepreneur, when you hire bi-and multilingual employees it adds tremendous value to your business, the services you offer, and the relationships you build with your customers,” says Adam Shlomi, founder of SoFlo Tutors. “This is especially true for professional tutors that seek to foster an environment of multicultural diversity and education, alongside a culturally responsive approach to tutoring that benefits the futures of every student. When businesses embrace more multilingualism in the workplace, they offer themselves a more flexible, skilled, and innovative workforce with heightened cultural awareness and stronger communications.”
It’s also important to consider the impact of supply and demand on the cost of these types of assets when determining how critical they are to an organization, as Patterson-Cole alludes to when noting the potential costs of recruiting multilingual staff. For example, if there are 100,000 individuals across the globe who have the qualifications for a particular role, that number could drop to the double digits or lower if you add the criterion that they speak Spanish and French in addition to English. These potential employees may also demand a higher wage to correspond with their multilingual abilities. Therefore, employers considering such an investment should be confident that the language skills would be a real benefit and not simply a nice-to-have.
Additionally, multilingualism in the office can be challenging unless everyone has a solid grasp of a core language. Without a core, shared language, internal communication can be seriously hampered. “The most crucial challenge of running a multilingual workplace is that it can be overwhelming to track everything,” says Michael Knight, cofounder and head of marketing for Incorporation Insight. “Other employers who are considering adopting this move must ensure they are hiring employees who also speak English to maintain organizational cohesion and less disrupted workflows. Working closely with direct supervisors or team leaders is a must in this setting and employers who will fail to establish a standard language for all in-company tasks, mandates, reminders, projects, etc., will suffer from miscommunication which can be fatal for a business.”
The Role of Technology
As mentioned, new technology continues to create increasingly viable alternatives to multilingual humans. Anyone with an Internet connection can quickly translate text from virtually any language to virtually any other language at no cost with online tools like Google Translate. Of course, these tools are currently nowhere near a human who is fluent in two or more languages, but employers should consider when good enough is better than perfect in this context.
“Obviously, you wouldn’t hire a copywriter who can’t speak fluent English, but you can find programmers, graphic designers, and other workers who know enough English to get by and can use translation tools for the rest,” says Patterson-Cole. “You really have to take a sober look at how much communication is necessary, the complexity of said communication, and the language skills of your staff. If you hire, say, a native Thai speaker who only speaks B1 level English, it’s going to be fundamentally different whether you have no other Thai speakers in your office, or if they can liaise with a bilingual Thai-English speaker who’s on staff. And who’ll hopefully stay with you for the long-term, because you’ll be in an extra bind if they leave.”
Other business leaders point out that the human element is simply not present in currently available translation tools. “Translation tools are no match to a bi- or multi-lingual person, because an app can’t have a conversation with a client in real time, nor is it as accurate when it comes to text translation,” argues Mark Pierce, CEO of Cloud Peak Law Group. “That being said, translation tools can be useful when there is a language barrier and you don’t have anyone available to translate.”
Bi- and multilingualism often raise recruiters’ eyebrows when looking over job applications, but how valuable are these skills really when stacked up against the core requirements of a particular role? Of course, the answer depends on the particulars of the role, the company, the industry, and the market.
While technological advancements may one day make human multilingualism obsolete, we’re certainly nowhere near that situation at present. Nevertheless, employers considering recruiting multilingual staff should determine when available tools are good enough for their actual needs before paying top dollar for a multilingual employee.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.