In recruitment, additional languages are seen as an indicator of a well-rounded professional, one who learns independently and has an international mindset.
But when it comes to professional development, this wisdom often goes out the window. HR leaders are well aware of research showing a correlation between language learning and mental acuity, focus, and life satisfaction, yet learning and development programs continue to devote resources to perceived “quick wins,” like coding bootcamps and pop psychology courses.
This might be because language learning is seen as an intensive process, quickly abandoned by all but the best motivated, while the benefits are slow to mature. Companies are sometimes willing to support proactive employees who pursue this area of study, but they do little or nothing to encourage it.
They may be missing out on an enormous competitive advantage.
Here are four reasons why foreign languages should be at the heart of your L&D program.
1. Enhance rather than disrupt career trajectories
The elephant in the room in many L&D discussions is that acquiring new skills sometimes goes hand in hand with changes in role.
Of course, when employees are motivated to succeed in lateral moves, companies should want to facilitate such changes. It’s in no one’s best interest for any professional to remain in a role where they feel like they’re stagnating; however, that should not be the primary purpose of professional development. In a healthy, sustainable culture, linear progress is the norm.
When employers push certain kinds of training, it can leave employees feeling as though their skill set is seen as declining in value. At worst, this might even cultivate a desire for change in employees who are otherwise satisfied. An excellent L&D program should be slightly less targeted, emphasizing soft skills over hard skills.
However, the trouble with workshops that claim to train soft skills is that they’re often based on transient or pseudoscientific ideas. Along with hyper-focused courses on niche hard skills, the knowledge they impart might even be outdated in a few years.
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2. This type of knowledge won’t become outdated
Foreign languages do deteriorate when they go unused, but, whether they’re maintained or not, learning these skills will provide a lifetime of value.
In terms of simply maximizing the advantage to employees, timeless competencies are unrivaled. Arithmetics, core science, languages, and practical skills all have a bigger impact on the life of a professional than hyper-specialized training. Internal mentorship, conversely, is usually more effective at helping employees improve in their roles in the short term.
Having said that, knowledge that isn’t relevant at all to day-to-day work somewhat undermines the purpose of professional development, giving it the air of an employee perk rather than an investment in success.
Languages escape this phenomenon: while a professional might go years without speaking a second language in the course of their work, they will occasionally have thoughts in it while problem-solving. This creates a link between the two activities and reinforces the experience of language skills as a component of professional identity, rather than a hobby.
3. Make a measurable impact on innovation
Some of the most valuable professional qualities are seen as uncoachable. Companies can try to select for integrity, creativity, and determination at the recruitment stage, but to quantify and attempt to develop them seems impossible.
Language learning may be the secret to having an impact. A learner that attains a certain level and is motivated to go further gravitates toward edifying activities. At home, they may switch from Netflix binges to watching foreign-language movies. In their social lives, they may connect with a broader range of people from different backgrounds, and when they go abroad they’re likely to have a more immersive, culturally rich experience.
This adds up to a professional who is exposed to more ideas and becomes more comfortable with having their own assumptions challenged – in short, a more innovative thinker and perhaps a better problem-solver.
The impact of a language-learning initiative on performance can even be tested. If employees are incentivized to take courses and ultimately gain qualifications in additional languages, the language-learning group can be compared to the company at large on achievement of OKRs or KPIs. If there’s a noticeable difference, that can easily justify further investment in the program.
4. Harmonize L&D with employee well-being goals
Learning languages doesn’t just make us smarter – it makes us happier as well.
Much as with uncoachable skills, well-being tends to be elusive for HR departments to measure. Contemporary strategies are somewhat reactive: make resources available, respond empathetically and supportively when employees report emotional difficulties, etc.
But what if an initiative could be shown to improve self-reported employee well-being? Plenty of services claim to be able to deliver this in a turnkey fashion, sometimes under the umbrella of mindfulness workshops – but the evidence that these are effective is inconsistent.
Language learning is a more subtle approach. Rather than insisting that individuals should feel less stressed as a result of the practice, the conscious intentions are more concrete. Well-being is a downstream effect rather than a loudly stated objective.
The reasons why are similar to those that relate to performance. A professional who catches the language bug is not just acquiring a skill, they’re immersing themselves in a culture, often even a group of related but distinct cultures. It’s a powerful catalyst for making lifestyle changes and integrating positive habits into daily life.
Most importantly of all, this change takes place without the implication that the employee surrenders the management of their emotional state to their employer. This distinction is everything. If learning the new language does change the individual’s life for the better, and the journey was sparked or sponsored by their company, they’ll feel gratitude without sacrificing personal agency.
How to make it happen
There is something to be said for avoiding the path of least resistance.
It’s true that learning a language is a long-term commitment. Many adults who begin the process abandon it after a few weeks or settle into a habit of using gamified apps and don’t make much serious progress.
To unlock the advantages, HR departments must push quite hard. They might consider some very attractive rewards for employees that acquire a certification in a foreign language, like a paid vacation to a place where it’s spoken. They could also give continuous recognition, making it clear that the company sees language learning as indicative of leadership qualities.
The additional effort and resources required to drive such an initiative constitute a sound investment. The employees that achieve a high level of competence in their chosen language will have profoundly meaningful experiences, which will forever be associated with the support and encouragement of the company.
Even those who attain only a basic level will benefit. Over time, those benefits may be visible in the form of improved productivity, reduced churn, and a culture where excellent cross-cultural understanding is the norm.