Breaking down global language barriers

Globalisation has given companies distributed teams, new opportunities to expand or sell abroad, and access to the best talent anywhere. Is it about time the C-suite embraced language learning?

Collaboration today isn’t blocked by borders. Work has become increasingly international, with the best talent taking on tasks remotely from anywhere in the world.

When language barriers exist between employees, suppliers, and contractors, many companies may see new problems emerge. Opportunities can become stifled, preventing them from selling into new markets, widening their supply chains, finding more cost-effective manufacturing methods, or attracting new employees to their distributed teams.

If you look at the average list of employee benefits and perks, it might include gym membership, lunch vouchers, and loans to buy season tickets for train travel. But C-suites are waking up to the possibilities of introducing language learning to their employees’ benefits packages, expanding their personal horizons, and opening up new avenues professionally.

Mait Müntel, co-founder of AI-driven language learning platform Lingvist, believes empowering colleagues to communicate more effectively with each other, no matter where they are based, will significantly impact productivity and profit.

“Having a little bit more language fluency removes a lot of friction,” says Müntel. “It’s really important if you’re working collaboratively. It removes friction inside the company, but it also removes it in the market. If someone does not speak the language, they might appear impolite. How people behave has a huge impact on revenue.”

He adds: “If a company’s employees can speak another language, even in very basic terms, this can foster better working relationships and friendships.”

Harnessing targeted teaching

Müntel advocates for a different approach to language upskilling. Instead of teaching a generalised set of words and phrases, Lingvist harnesses artificial intelligence and machine learning to focus on the sector-specific vocabulary needed in a particular job role or industry. Companies or external partners can provide documents, reports, manuals, whitepapers, and other written materials available to explain what they do and how they do it. The platform then processes these to create bespoke lessons featuring the most useful language.

Getting up to a conversational standard can take many years for those who learned French, Spanish, or German in school. What is usually taught to teenagers covers various scenarios – holidays, small talk about the weather, directions to the local library. But Müntel’s technology prioritises a streamlined approach for professional conversations, giving people precisely the language skills they need in a matter of months.

“The way we teach languages is extraordinarily fast because our lessons are highly personalised,” he says. “We use smart algorithms that actually make the learning more efficient. The goal of building this technology was to learn languages in months rather than years and to make them accessible to everyone.”

The platform, which started as a direct-to-consumer offering, now has more than six million app downloads across Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Each language has a series of pairings, for example, English to German, English to Estonian, or English to Russian. Müntel describes this as “a journey from one language to another.”

Making the brain comfortable

Different industries each use very different – and often highly specific – words and phrases. Diving into languages for professional purposes can be a frightening prospect to many would-be learners, especially given the prevalence of jargon and buzzwords. But machine learning reduces that fear. It crawls the internet, news sources, and any documents provided to identify helpful information quickly. AI also addresses the need for individuals to learn at their own pace, watching how they react to personalise a programme based on someone’s habits, needs, and circumstances.

To get the best out of everyone, the learning must work at a level their brain is comfortable with, says Müntel. He explains: “I struggled with languages at school. I counted that it took me 10,000 hours to learn English. So, I began to question whether the traditional method was the best and whether I was actually learning the right stuff.”

Having previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher at CERN in Switzerland, where he was part of the Higgs boson discovery team, Müntel grappled with learning the local language while balancing a heavy workload. This led him to develop a mathematical framework to prove how learning a new language in just 200 hours would be possible.

“Some words are just a million times more frequent,” he says. “Statistically, we look at what you need as a learner. A retail company has one vocabulary set, and a football club has another. It’s different again for transportation, medicine, or law. By using artificial intelligence and defining fields of interest with your own texts, books, and keywords, the computer can find other similar words in similar fields. This happens pretty quickly.”

Driving collective value

One issue Müntel noticed when working at CERN was that while scientists could work in English, their partners and children often became isolated, living in a new place without the words and phrases to integrate successfully in their new environment. He believes companies can also utilise new ways of digital learning to help employees’ families bed in when they are transferred to a new country.

Although Lingvist is currently focused on intermediate users and those wanting to advance their language capabilities quickly, the company has plans to scale its platform towards beginners later this year.

Age is no barrier either, Müntel insists, especially when there is a push to get over-50s back into the UK workforce post-Covid. Lingvist data shows that while older people often think they can’t pick up new languages as fast as younger colleagues, this is not the case. For Müntel, each new language a person learns brings new opportunities to grow personally and professionally. “When English-speaking people learn the language of their key markets, they are more appreciated and valued. Knowing even a little bit will make working much better,” he says.

Thanks to current natural language processing technology, Müntel believes the possibilities are endless: “In English, there are maybe a million words. If you speak conversationally, you need maybe 3000. When working, you probably need 1000, maybe 2000 professional words on top of common vocabulary. It’s not a huge number if you let technology identify those words you have to learn.”

As the workforce becomes increasingly international, language learning becomes a gateway to cross-border collaboration, new markets and new horizons. The technology is now here to make it attainable to all.

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This article was originally published by Raconteur in The Times’ report on “The Future of Work 2023.” Read the original article here.

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