HBS Cases: Overcoming the Stress of ‘Englishnization’

CEOs of global companies increasingly mandate that their employees learn English. The problem: these workers can experience a loss of status and believe they aren't as effective in their learned language, says Assistant Professor Tsedal Neeley.
by Kim Girard

In March 2010, CEO Hiroshi Mikitani (HBS MBA '93) stood in front of his employees at online retail giant Rakuten's Tokyo headquarters and dropped a bomb: all 7,100 workers would have two years to become proficient in English—the "language of business"—or risk demotion.

"I was simply astonished," said an engineer interviewed after the announcement. "Many Rakuten employees are allergic to English."

“If they don't have a language strategy, they'll regret it”

In a company where just 10 percent of all workers at the time spoke English, Mikitani's move was radical and divisive. He even coined a term for the conversion: "Englishnization."

"This issue is explosive," says Assistant Professor Tsedal Neeley, who tracks Rakuten's journey in her case Language and Global "Englishnization" at Rakuten. "Students have strong reactions to this. Some insist that this is a poison pill that you have to swallow—there's no other choice. Others say: 'This is impossible, the CEO is crazy. How can you do that?' "

Neeley argues that chief executives of global companies will have no choice but to confront the language issue as they extend their global reach.

"If they don't have a language strategy, they'll regret it," she says. "Even American-based companies with operations overseas need a language strategy. One of the most powerful ways to globally compete today is to make your company an English-speaking company. This takes years to achieve."

The problem is that teaching non-English speakers a new language risks drops in productivity, causes some employees to lose status, and can engender belief that they aren't as effective in their second tongue—all significant hurdles employers must overcome to make a program successful.

Neeley, who has studied this unmined subject for nearly 10 years, worked closely on the case with Mikitani, described by some as Japan's Bill Gates.

Mikitani expected that the initial global English-only conversion would be difficult for his company. "This is going to be a long-term effort for us," he said. "Starting this month, my own speech will simply be in English."

All workers were required to take a two-hour 200-question test to assess their reading and listening comprehension of business English, and continue to take the test until they passed. A second phase involved bringing in lecturers to discuss with employees how to study and manage learning the language. The last phase was encouraging workers to use English in meetings.

In line with a do-it-yourself culture, one early problem was that Rakuten offered little initial training or support to workers, who were expected to pay for their own English classes and learn during off-hours.

Neeley, who drafted some best practices that the company began to implement, says Rakuten has quickly moved to make substantial changes, including paying for language classes.

While workers in their 40s and older typically resist language mandates more than do 20-somethings, Neeley says the older workers at Rakuten also shared advantages: they often had more education and money to pay for additional private or small-group classes. "Higher education is correlated with stronger language education," she says. "If you have a second language already it is so much easier, and people in their 40s can make inroads."

While it's challenging for workers to start from scratch it is "absolutely doable," she says.

English In A French Firm

In a separate, forthcoming Organization Science article titled "Language Matters: Status Lost and Achieved Status Distinctions in Global Organizations," Neeley interviewed workers at a $25 billion Paris-based high-tech company about its two-year-old English-only language mandate. (She uses the pseudonym Frenchco for the company in the case.)

With about 40 percent of Frenchco's 210,000 employees based outside France, pressure had mounted to change to English-only. The company's customers, partners, suppliers, and competitors were using English exclusively; its operations were becoming increasingly global; and it had made recent acquisitions in Poland and the UK and opened a subsidiary in China.

“In English I am not myself. My personality is much smaller in this context.”

Neeley, who speaks five languages, conducted in-depth interviews in English and French with workers at all levels of Frenchco, in particular studying status loss among workers learning a new language. She searched for key words in her interviews with workers such as "diminished," "devalued," "reduced," disqualified," and "less sophisticated."

All employees whose native language was not English experienced a status loss under the mandate, she found, regardless of their level of English fluency.

"There's this universal experience of status diminution when people compare their native/formally trained language to this new language," Neeley says. "So no matter how fluent some people are in English, they believe they'll never be as sophisticated, as influential, or as articulate as they are in their native language."

Interestingly, Neeley found the French-to-English-only transition was most difficult for workers with midlevel fluency. They shared the most anxiety about their language abilities, which were neither stellar nor poor.

One low-fluency worker painfully summarized his experience: "If you cannot express your ideas because you lack language skills, the collaboration becomes a nightmare. You lose interest to continue, and you feel you are being devalued."

Most of these language-anxiety issues remained under the surface at Frenchco, Neeley says. These workers often suffered silently, worrying about disclosing a deficit, being passed over for promotions, being left out of conversations that they couldn't understand, or simply not being able to show their true selves through humor and discussions in English at the same level they were able to in French.

Neeley's forthcoming Organizational Dynamics article, "The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Organizations," written with Pamela J. Hinds and Catherine D. Cramton, addresses the hidden nature of language struggles.

These problems created an "us and them" class of native and nonnative English speakers, which sometimes led to resentment and distrust among nonnative speakers toward the native speakers.

Working with English speakers from the UK or America was more difficult for the Frenchco workers than working with English-speaking colleagues in Poland, the Netherlands, or Spain, Neeley found. In one interview a Frenchco worker said: "A real English person is in a stronger position, and I find myself justifying myself much more in those interactions."

Native speakers can also dominate conversations, workers said in Neeley's interviews. "Sometimes it's hard to get our American colleagues to be quiet but we manage," a high-fluency speaker reported in an interview. "I say, 'If you don't stop we're going to talk in French.' "

While many Frenchco workers were angry about the English-language mandate, Neeley says a small number of highly fluent workers viewed the change as a chance to perfect their English by asking for feedback from native speakers, participating in meetings as often as possible, repeating key phrases, and seeking out English speakers in their groups.

Helping Employees Learn

There's a number of techniques companies can employ to reassure and help workers with this transition. First, it's crucial for CEOs and managers to be firm that nonnative speakers don't have a problem. All workers have to be invested in working and speaking together, Neeley says.

Managers should also be aware that workers often underestimate their language capabilities. In many cases, testing and offering benchmarks helps calm anxieties, as can limiting meetings for low-confidence English speakers until their language skills improve.

Future research, Neeley says, includes exploring the role of language as the mechanism by which companies transform from a domestic to a global player-the fulcrum of language.

When teaching the Rakuten case at HBS, where 35 percent of her students are international, Neeley says, students were passionately engaged. There is no topic that is more personal than language. You just need human experience to "get it."

"I had an American student who couldn't stop thinking about what a nonnative classmate said in class: 'In English I am not myself. My personality is much smaller in this context.' So many people have said the case taught them about themselves."

Aside from the deep personal connection, the case is also powerful for students because they have such an intense interest in globalization. "Language is emblematic of that," she says.

About the Author

Kim Girard is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.
    • Daniel Daeniker
    • Partner, Homburger AG
    It is telling that an American never once asks the question why all employees of a foreign firm should learn English while hordes of U.S. executives working overseas never even bother to learn the local language.

    Admittedly, English has become the "lingua franca" of the world today. But English speakers are often quite cavalier about the fact that language skills and management talent do not necessarily coincide.

    English speakers can ease the anxiety of their non-English speaking staff in other ways than simply forcing them to learn the language, notably

    -- by trying to engage in an English conversation in which they speak slowly and without too much Anglo-saxon jargon (your Chinese worker will never understand you when you talk about "Monday morning quarterbacking" or "covering all the bases");

    -- appointing "interpreters" in working groups and staff meetings whose function is to summarize the outcome of the meeting in English even if the meeting itself was held in the local language;

    -- recognizing, when making promotion decisions, that language skills can never be a substitute for a lack of management talent.

    D. Daeniker (fluent in English, German, French, and Spanish)
    • Earl Okezie
    • CEO, WordmartNigeria
    I saw this coming a long time ago. Even the English themselves predicted that some day their language will rule the world. And here we are.
    • Anonymous
    Attempting to force an all-English policy in a truly global company is both ineffective and unfair. Far better to ensure the employees in their local countries that they can have successful careers in the domestic market without English but if they want to work globally, a degree of fluency with English will likely be needed. Reality is that the company will miss out on many really talented people if it insists on unlingual English interactions. Many people who are considered bilingual (English as the 2nd language) are not, in fact, sufficiently fluent to have meaningful business discussions internally or externally, in English. Far better to insist on bilingual, or multilingual, leaders since there are fewer of them and they have the responsibility to lead the company. Simply, it should be necessary for English speaking leaders in global MNCs to speak more than one language.
    • Charles H. Green
    • CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates
    Many years ago my company had an annual meeting in Barcelona. Our host had arranged for the governor of the Autonomous Province of Catalunia, Jordi Pujol, to address us in the rotunda of the old Generalitat building in the old Barrio Gotico.

    He said, in halting English, how proud he was to have an American company in Spain. Then he stopped, and said:

    "I must apologize for my English; I recognize English is the language of the future.

    "But you must recognize that the English of the future is my English - not your English."

    How right he is. All of we native English speakers - Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, Americans - have got to do our part by learning to speak Global English. Use Latinate words if speaking to Europeans; eschew slang; speak at a measured pace; say things twice but in different words; and above all, enunciate clearly.

    Language should be a two-party affair.
    • Susan Chipman
    • retired
    The strange thing about this item is that one would never know from reading it that English has been required in the Japanese schools since the end of WWII.
    The only clue was the exam given -- people would have had to have studied English for the exams to be given.
    I lived in Japan for two years as a child in the mid-fifties. If my brother and I went into a department store, they would find a young employee to speak English to us. Everyone seized upon us to practice their English, such as it was, if only to say, "Hello". This was a bit of a barrier to learning Japanese. In the southern city where we lived, there was no television so people really had no idea what English sounded like.
    It is one of my lifelong regrets that I did not learn much Japanese at that time (ages 10-12). I was actually interested in learning Japanese, and read some material about the Japanese language that my parents had, but the small DoD Dependent School that I attended did not bother to hire anyone to teach us Japanese. They did hire a Japanese art teacher, however.
    I learned the Japanese needed to negotiate the price of toys with the little old ladies who ran toy shops in the hills -- polite forms and a lot of numbers, since the yen was not worth much at that time. And I learned how to understand English as spoken by the Japanese, a skill that has come in handy every now and then. It took me about 6 months to learn that. Years ago I happened to attend a short summer course at MIT on the latest and greatest in computer graphics. Another of the attendees was the head of auto body design for Toyota. He actually knew English very well, but I was the only one who could understand his speech. So I "translated" -- "He wants to know ..."
    Another amusing episode came when Casper Weinburger, then Secretary of Defense, was the keynote speaker at a colloquium on science education at the National Academy of Sciences. It seemed that a staffer had handed him the wrong speech. He spoke on the importance of foreign language instruction. I was strongly tempted to ask him if it was yet the policy of the Department of Defense Dependent Schools to offer instruction in the language of the country. I rather doubt that it is, unless the language happens to be one ordinarily offered in US high schools. I chickened out because I was then working in DoD.
    If it had been the policy to teach Japanese in the DoD Dependent Schools in Japan, some of which were large, there would be many more people in the US who would know Japanese.
    The two languages have significant differences in both sound and grammar, so they are mutually difficult to learn. The Japanese schools do not do very well with it. However, any employee with a university level education in Japan will have passed fairly demanding written exams of English.
    For most people in the world it is obvious that they should learn English. For Americans, however, it is difficult to predict what language will later prove important to know, and learning a language is a big investment of time and effort. In my opinion, much more research is needed to figure out how to teach languages much faster and more effectively when people have a need to learn them. No government agency has made such research a priority, and little is known. I think it should be the Department of Commerce.

    Susan Chipman, MBA 1967; PhD Experimental Psychology 1973, retired federal research manager.
    • Dr. S A Visotsky
    • Chairman & CEO, Vitech Group LLC
    You wrote:

    "In English I am not myself. My personality is much smaller in this context."

    Their personality should be small, along with their ego.

    It's all part of the new business world, and people need to get onboard.

    Compliance doesn't mean we have new rules, it means following orders for labor, and the enforcement of those orders, for Management.

    They are not there to represent themselves, but rather the company they work for, English being the language to bring them together, rather than drive them apart.

    This is very common in Europe, where the embittered employees overstep their authority, thinking the company belongs to them personally, and that they hold an advantage, or are securing their position by not learning English, or simply refusing to, so they are still included, as "key personnel". This is endemic in Germany.

    For me, it means their exclusion in the Project, full stop.

    That being said, native English speakers are judged in foreign countries, when they have only a basic knowledge of the host nation language, they are looked down upon, and the foreign hosts then talk about them badly right in front of them, in the host language.

    Being multilingual myself, I have seen this too often.

    I have recently been in a meeting, where my people were referred to as "stupid" and "simple minded" because their German skills were very basic. I stopped the meeting and kicked the German delegates who whispered it, out of my building.

    We were trying to accomodate "their lack of English" by attempting to run the meeting in German for their sake, because their English was non existant, and then they act arrogant about it.

    I then called Munich and told them in the future I want only English speaking delegates, since the German Industrial Major, has agreed to using English as the offical business language of their organization.

    If they want to send me people who allegedly did their phony MBA in English, then they can speak English at our meetings.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Whether one likes it or not, English is the common global language and it is necessary for internationl activities to acquire reading, writing and speaking proficiency of the language. It is no doubt a fact that while natives are required to learn English, no such requirement is expected of the people from English speaking countries and they mostly escape from learning the local language even when their stay for job or buisiness is long term. Moreover, they do not speak in a style to make them easily understood by the local commununity. It is too much to expect the latter to take pains to change their listening skills to decipher the speed/twisting style of the English from many countries.
    There needs to be a two way understanding and empathy as far as communication, verbal, in particular, is concerned.
    • Anil Purushothaman
    • Associate Professor, IPER, India
    I believe that the ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas correctly and effectively has no language barriers, having said that, what makes a language strategy unavoidable is who the audience is.
    Indian society has been by-and-large adaptive to global changes, but a political divide over making Hindi as the Official language of communication in India has been confusing the mentors at schools and colleges. A justification in support of not letting the national language give way to English is of China, about how the Chinese deliberately maintain their language above all other global languages on their products and equipments sold across the globe even today.
    One cannot avoid the impending need of a pro-English language strategy, all because the English language meets the requirements of a global language - easy to learn and global presence, but, one also needs to go by the audience being addressed.
    • Anonymous
    This is a good article about how companies approach globalization by defining a language strategy. Leaders must carefully weigh the Pros & Cons of implementing an English only requirement. There will be growing pains, but in the long term, it will be in the best interest of all the firm's stakeholders such as employees, customers, partners, and investors. The clear and obvious risk of this approach is the loss of productivity from employees who may be struggling to effectively communicate in English. It takes time to master a new language in a way where your thoughts and personality flow seamlessly. The sooner a company takes overt actions to define its language strategy, the better off they will be in the long terms.
    • Atul Guglani
    • Director, Mantex Technologies
    Interesting subject . Having worked in quite a few countries, I can say that Language issues are one of the biggest unrecorded losses in most MNC. Wherein instructions are routinely misinterpreted and wrongly executed.

    Though now with Translation software, things have become much more simpler and easier, yet the need to have one common business language globally is still there. MNC managers working in a non English speaking country always have to battle not only with the inhouse ambiguities of interpretations within the company communications, but also handling the local suppliers , customers, regulatory authorities is the biggest challenge.

    Infact for most transnational managers , it is very lonely working in a non English environment and none of them is ever sure, what he has communicated has gone down rightly.

    At the end, it does help, if the company prefers to choose its employees with English speaking background. No matter, it is Spaniglish, Singlish , Chinglish or Hinglish.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    Fascinating item and comments - thank you.

    Isn't it usually the case that who owns the language controls the conversation?

    Business English is the new Pidgin - let's all learn it. Nobody is asking others to LOSE their own languages, with their all their richness, nuances and centrality in defining who and what we are. By extending our linguistic skill we can only grow in stature and understand each other better.
    • Anju Kotwani
    • Freelance Writer
    It is pretty sad that workers go through such a stressful condition to master English in some countries. However, the growth of China as world's powerful economy even without forcing the vast majority of population to be proficient in English, is the best example for other nations.
    • Anonymous
    Great article. In this global economy, language and communication is extremely important. We need really need best practices to help diverse employees communicate effectively.
    • Anonymous
    Interesting article and great comments. I work in India and have a recent experience visiting China for a 3-day meeting at the headoffice of a Beijing based design firm. On both sides of the table, we had non-native English speakers who could manage some English. The meetings were successful and we agreed that the 'some English' we knew played a big role in this success.
    • Dr.Prasanna Kumar Mozumdar
    • Management Consultant, P.M. Consultant & Associates
    There is no doubt about the fact that with globalization, the popularity of English as a medium of communication is increasing and the importance is ever growing. But the language of communication should be a matter of convenience and understanding. To achieve proficiency at work place, the workers and managers should understand each other better. Where one need to express for understanding and also with heart. The other side to whom communication is made should understand. If for instance one is not proficient in English language and communication is made in English, than it may be very difficult for the other person to understand the objective and real intentions of communication. That may lead to some time miscommunication even total communication break-down situation. Yet the intentions of the communicator are genuine and true. Therefore, any transnational corporation operating in any part of the world where English is not the
    ir native language, there they shall have to be very careful to introduce English as the medium of communication and transactions. Even if they decide to do so, the care must be taken not to disturb their local language base.

    In India for instance the most popular and widely used language of instructions of higher education is English. While I teach at university and colleges, I teach in English. The text books that are followed are also in English. But, as a teacher I shall have to establish my personal contacts with students for various works, projects and other issues. During such occasions I find it is most convenient and effective if I can talk to them in their own language, not in English. For instance I can speak four different Indian languages, which I use very effectively during my work and I am getting desirable results.
    • David Broderick
    • Director Global Services, CAI
    Interesting article and good insight into the implications of requiring employees to learn English as a second (or third...) language.

    A point that was made that I believe is a key contributor to the program's success is "All workers have to be invested in working and speaking together". This is true not just in helping others learn English, but showing each culture the proper respect as well.

    Developing relationships across cultures, regardless of language barriers, is how companies succeed globally. Therefore, while the intent of everyone learning to speak English is to help the business compete globally, they need to ensure that while the business language will be universal, the cultural differences will remain and need to continue to be supported and respected as well.
    • Anonymous
    This article has certainly provoked a lot of emotion on both sides of the issue. Whether or not one agrees with the "English only" strategy, English as become the lingua franca for business.

    I completely agree that the multilingual worker who can communicate effectively in several languages will have a leg up. However, given the sheer number of countries where many of us are doing business these days (personally for me: Brazil, Germany, CIS, Turkey, Czech, Romania, South Africa, China, India), having even functional basics in all is impossible.

    Companies that enable their workers to communicate across borders more effectively, will see more positive returns. This involves a combination of executive sponsorship, shifts in corporate culture, training if appropriate and very critically technologies to enable collaboration and allow workers to operate at a higher level than their current level of English.
    • Shahid
    • student of M Phil, NCBA&E
    May be the problem is related to the countries non-adaptive of English and promoting their own language in education institutions and the world overall, Thus when confronted with the problems of global nature of the business and finding English as the internationally recognized language may cause them the feelings of anxiety. I believe the study should have incorporated the interviews or opinions of the native English speakers to confirm the reservations of nonnative speakers, may be if given the correct opinion it might have revealed the reservations as correct, moreover the biasness of the author is also expected. Another aspect could be the biased attitude of the nonnative speakers as an effort to counter the decision of imposing English language on to them.
    The comparison of the language and the cultures is worth noting, if second culture which dominates, cause frustration at any stage so should the language and especially to those who care for their languages and try to promote it globally. Accepting any language other than the native will follow the acceptance of the other culture as well thus further frustrating the individuals by making them to feel not only status loss but later feeling the loss of identity as well.
    This statement of the author is worth challenging and debatable ( I conceptualize status loss here as the subjective experience of a decreased professional regard, and hereafter I refer to status loss as this perceived evaluation of status diminution.)

    1. It must be considered to find a way out to use the native language in different countries and convert the text into English and other languages whenever required so as to pay respect to every language rather than imposing one single language globally.
    2. May be the identified problem of Status loss actually proves to be something more than this, like, a resistance with the intentions to get back the status loss of their native language, if the study is conducted more deliberately for the same firm and issue.
    3. To eliminate any aspects of biasness, French and other nationals speaking different languages should also be involved to conduct the same study.
    4. Foregoing above recommendations, the concept of Globalization, actually needs some attention, which may require certain amendments to address the problems highlighted.