Language Wars Divide Global Companies

An increasing number of global firms adopt a primary language for business operations—usually English. The problem: The practice can surface dormant hostilities around culture and geography, reports Tsedal Neeley.
by Kim Girard

As global companies increasingly adopt a dominant language, usually English, which all employees must use to simplify communications and increase collaboration, many are dismayed to find an unexpected outcome.

Results are exactly opposite of what was intended.

Instead of making business operations more efficient, the use of such a lingua franca can add layers of complication and delay. And instead of fostering collaboration, it can create cultural fissures between employees.

“It's volcanic, waiting for something to ignite it, and then it explodes”

It turns out that language wars are always simmering beneath the surface, as Harvard Business School Associate Professor Tsedal Neeley's research demonstrates.

"It's volcanic, waiting for something to ignite it, and then it explodes—and this is what we see in these global teams," says Neeley, whose work identifies not only the language problems but also what managers can do to overcome them.

Neeley explores language and its connection to power dynamics on global teams in Language as a Lightning Rod: Power Contests, Emotion Regulation, and Subgroup Dynamics in Global Teams, published in the Journal of International Business Studies in December. She cowrote the paper with Pamela Hinds of Stanford University and Catherine Cramton of George Mason University.

The authors point to classic research by Dora Lau and Keith Murnighan on "faultlines"—team subgroups that form based on demographics. In Language as a Lightning Rod, this prior work is advanced to examine how language differences in subgroups can create an "us versus them" dynamic among workers, and how those schisms are linked to who holds power in firms.

The study follows 96 workers on six software development teams at a global high-tech company called by the pseudonym GlobalTech, based in Germany, with mixed nationality teams working in the United States, Germany, and India.

Two years before the study, GlobalTech standardized on English as its business language, to mixed reaction from employees. The US- and India-based workers seemed fine with the new policy (most Indian workers are already bilingual, training at university in English), while many Germans found reading and speaking English awkward, making it difficult to express and defend their ideas. According to the paper, based on interviews conducted by the research team, "nearly all of them expressed feeling some anxiety about having access to appropriate words," particularly when the work became highly technical, conversations became emotional, or when the workers were tired.

Language barriers can divide teams in multinational companies.
Photo: iStockPhoto

Five researchers interviewed and tracked GlobalTech team members through the workday, following them to meetings, teleconferences, at lunch, and at after-work social gatherings. For a team split between Germany and India, one researcher conducted observations at the German site, while another researcher observed in India during the same week.

"We lived and experienced these teams," Neeley says.

And they asked questions. Can you tell us about your project? How do you interact with your colleagues at other sites? Describe what you did yesterday from the time you walked into your office.

Language Frustration

Neeley and her colleagues found ample evidence that language anxiety and frustration were common throughout many of the interviews; many reported a sense of being "other" or experiencing an "us versus them" dynamic at a work site. The researchers rated the teams as high, medium, or low, based on the intensity of this "us versus them" effect.

For example, one team that ranked high on the scale, which had a dozen members located in Germany and six in the United States, suffered severe subgrouping among both Germans and Americans.

The Germans viewed themselves as quite different and more competent than their American colleagues. Meanwhile, US team members repeatedly described themselves as "outsiders" and complained that some German team members spoke in German during meetings, making them feel excluded or talked about.

"They are certainly entitled to speak their language. It's just sometimes infuriating because they'll just break into it in mid-meeting…," one American explained.

In another multinational group, this one featuring four German workers in Germany and 14 Indians in India, the "us and them" effect was rated in the middle, neither high nor low. None of the Indian team members spoke German but overall were positive about working with Germans. The Germans, however, expressed some frustration that Indian team members were not as capable as they had hoped and were anxious to have the Indians learn German work practices.

The fewest "us and them" issues occurred among a team of 24 members split between Germany and India who were working on a data standardization project. Neither the Germans nor the Indians saw language as a problem, even when Indian team members communicated in their native Tamil and switched languages among English, Hindi, and Tamil. The researchers found that teams that were empathic and accepting about language issues and who didn't get emotional when workers, say, switched languages at a meeting, experienced less subgrouping.

So how to explain why language was such a divisive force in some groups, and not as much of a factor in others?

The Power Position

"Emotions around power or lack of it is a key contributor," Neeley says. Power—specifically who is perceived to have it and who doesn't—acts as a catalyst that triggers and reinforces anxieties over language and creates subgrouping. Without the power component, language differences don't seem as troublesome to team members; workers without power might be less emotional about language issues.

In the study, there was little subgrouping when workers accepted a power imbalance and were clear that the standards, decision-making, directions, strategy, and most of the opportunities flowed from one place: from Germany to India. "Our observation was that although the power imbalance was acknowledged, it was not contested," the paper states.

Power issues were more of a problem in US-German team relations, however.

Some American workers were wary that teams located at German headquarters had access to more of the company's resources. This caused subgrouping among the Americans who felt outnumbered—they described the dynamic as a rivalry, which the Germans acknowledged. (The team manager based in Germany told researchers that "every time the US team members develop something, it may get rejected because it does not fit with what the German team members have in mind.") Nonetheless, the American-based team also had power because they were closer to the key US software market, the company's core marketing team, and to tech industry analysts. Power struggles were constant.

Neeley says that the Indians, overall, in this study were less emotional because they didn't hold much power in the company. "They are younger, less knowledgeable (about the industry), and they were at the mercy of the Germans."

What Managers Can Do

In a previous paper—The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Collaboration—the same authors outline steps managers can take to control the damage of language-motivated subgrouping. These include:

Anticipate challenges and employee reactions. Managers must prepare for the communications challenges brought on by a new lingua franca system and watch for coping aids used by employees to avoid embarrassment, such as not attending meetings.

Create a safe communications environment. Watch for and remove communication barriers that threaten employees' sense of belonging.

Encourage practice of the new language. Provide nonthreatening environments where the new language can be studied and practiced.

Encourage empathy. Promote sharing of experiences as employees grapple with the challenge of working across languages.

Test assumptions. Help collaborators identify and test the assumptions they make about the intentions behind their colleagues' behavior.

About the Author

Kim Girard is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.
    • Bill Chapman
    How about a radical solution? Why not ask that everyone, whatever their mother tongue, use Esperanto as a common language within an international organisation? It could work!
    • Tom Dolembo
    • Founder, New North Institute
    Many midwestern factories have adopted lean manufacturing as a direction. Chinese manufacturers who we have met tell us that they are raising their managers to speak English as a first language, Mandarin second. Most of the companies we work with in the US are polyglot, Hispanic, Lao, Vietnamese, Phillipine, and dialects thereof not including various US dialects which are sometimes as complex. The language all understand is the lean manufacturing language, much Japanese, some German, and the data which is universal. The difficulty is great, true, but task based language is a better try than colloquial familiarity.
    • Umesh Gupta
    • General Manager ( Retd.) BHEL, NA
    We agree with writer but this is inevitable and bound to happen. Language socialism is not possible for technology area. Germans had their advantage. In India and my old company (BHEL ) who is a big user of German technology always made their engineers learn the German language. Many regions of the world suffered due to language handicap. Local languges in India did not progress only because whole science and engineering was developed in English and if we donot learn there is no way individual and country can progress. Therefore let us not call this as language war. It is a problem and solution lies in learning English only. However even Indian engineers who know English very well find it difficult to interact with Americans informally because of language and accent.
    • Teresa Lee
    • College Assistant at the Foreign Language Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
    For such a tecnical job, I agree that employees have to learn English, the lingua franca for time constraint and effective ness of the job at hand. However, both parties employees and managers should make an effort to integrate and create a comfortable working environment.
    Personally, I am a Spanish tutor, trilingual, and interested in intercultural communication, translation and interpretation, and learning foreign languages.
    Thank you hbs, I enjoy reading your informative and scholarly written articles very much.
    • Teresa Lee
    • College Assistant at the Foreign Language Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
    For such a tecnical job, I agree that employees have to learn English, the lingua franca for time constraint and effective ness of the job at hand. However, both parties employees and managers should make an effort to integrate and create a comfortable working environment.
    Personally, I am a Spanish tutor, trilingual, and interested in intercultural communication, translation and interpretation, and learning foreign languages.
    Thank you hbs, I enjoy reading your informative and scholarly written articles very much.
    • Walter P. Blass
    • President, Strategic Plans UnLtd.
    Bravo for Tsedal Neeley! I taught a case study on ABB in the early 1990's and was intrigued by Percy Barnevik's statement that English was the lingua franca in the entire company. When I came to their German headquarters in Mannheim to speak with the Public Relations VP, I asked the receptionist for my contact--in English. "Sprechen Sie deutsch?" he asked in return. Having been born in Germany, I did so. When I met the VP she excused herself and asked if I would be willing to speak with her deputy, because she was dealing with a crisis. The Deputy spoke English so slowly ( because he had to translate every thought from German ) that I got through only half the questions I had prepared. Finally, when Barnevik held forth with six of his direct reports at an annual meeting, I overheard them ALL speaking Swedish on the podium!
    • Peter
    Remember, for everyday conversations one needs only approximately 2,000 words, buying a beer, booking a hotel room, saying thank you, etc. So it doesn't mean much when someone 'speaks' a different language. When you are dealing with highly educated people they may actively use 20,000-30,000 words in their native language. They also are very well aware of the emotional loadings of many words. e.g. the English word 'problem' has a totally different meaning than the German word 'Problem'. They also understand the Translation Table explaining the truth behind English politeness (see But as a foreigner you may only know 3,000 English words. You are just not able to express in English what you want to say, and you also don't get the emotional picture between the lines.
    • Suparna Germann
    • CSC, Hoffmann La Roche
    Interesting article!
    It seemed as though language was an issue however the root cause was more power related. It's mostly seen in multi-cultural groups that where power is an issue language can add to the tension.
    • Clare McNamara
    • Founder & Global Executive Coach, Move Ahead Global
    If we want to perform well as Global Executives, understanding these kinds of issues is very useful (thank you Kim for sharing the research). Let's look at them not as 'wars' but opportunities. How can our increased awareness help us to better understand our colleagues around the world and the context in which they operate? What more do we need to do to develop trusting relationships across our often virtual teams?
    • Susan Chipman
    • retired
    I once visited IBM Japan as part of a group looking into human-computer interaction research in Japan. I was surprised by an attitude of considerable unwillingness to communicate with us in English, especially given that IBM is basically an American company. English has been a required subject in the Japanese schools since the end of WWII but relatively few Japanese are fluent in English. At other companies, we typically encountered very well dressed young women whose chief function seemed to be speaking English with visitors.
    I certainly understand why people prefer to communicate in their native languages. Those of us who are native speakers of English are very fortunate that English has become such a dominant language.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, none
    I was doubtful about commenting but then I thought that HBS efforts to tap into the experience of their alumni creates an excellent resource even though some responses will be rubbish. I think Tsedal Neeley is exploring particular aspects of what makes an effective team and I hope that her work yields results.
    • Gerald Schultz
    • CEO Retired, SNPE
    I had an interesting experience with a French based company when I was on a tour in New Mexico with the company's upper management/spouses and a few US trade magazine reporters/editors. After purchasing a number of companies in the US including the one I ran they decided to do all their international business in English. During a tourist presentation I stopped at a small shop to make a quick purchase and one of the French spouses severely scolded me because she said the only reason the presentation was in English was for me!
    • Anonymous
    And yet I might read something else into this. The Germans were easy with their Indian colleagues using their own language because both nationalities had another mother language to use for discussing among themselves whereas the Americans were at a disadvantage here.
    Sometimes we seem to lord it over others as if the fact that we speak perfect English and they don't makes us in some way superior and that probably gets on people's nerves and causes resentment too.
    The writer gives excellent pointers for dealing with the issue
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Whether someone likes it or not, it is a fact that English is the ultimate language for universal communication. Despite this, some people are highly obsessed and proud of their own language - German and French for example - and would prefer to use only their language also expecting others in their countries to do so. While this is ok, they must be ready to use English freely in US, UK, etc. Even in India, we commonly use English even though Hindi is spoken by most.
    Language wars are well known. When it comes to using local language, there is a north south divide in India too as the South person does not encourage Hindi and prefers to use Tamil,etc. even when s/he knows Hindi to some extent. Instead it is observed that these people go for English as the common medium.
    • Rita Hancock
    • Health Person, Health Service Administration
    I am African American, I use proper English because of the background I come from. But when I get around other cultures or people of different nationality I try to used proper English and writing for my Education, where as if i were out with my friends or family i may talk a little of my culture way. On a job i use proper English, but some people act like they don't understand me, because i have a tendency to talk a little fast and had to lost my words down. This is important for getting directions and making sure the person understands what he or she is suppose to do a job. If they don't understand, they could mess up the process, or if it's medical, giving someone medicine or the wrong food. Someone could died or have a reaction.
    • Ayuna Badmaeva
    • Managing Partner, Russia, The Fullbridge Program
    Good that this topic got attention from management researchers. IMHO, language becomes a barrier as a result of deeper organisational problems - power wars, office politics, lack of proper communications between HQ and overseas branches.
    • Felix do Carmo
    • Managing Directors, TIPS - Translation into Portuguese
    Great article, but it lacks the only reasonable solution: communication should be based on everyone's local languages, by implementing effective, high-quality translation and localisation services. Any consultant and expert on global business communication should have a deep knowledge of these services, as they are the basis for efficient communication in most global companies.
    • Rob Houck
    • Partner, Eaton & Van Winkle
    It's amazing to me how suspect foreign language ability is in the US. I have worked since 1979 in law firms dealing with German-speakers. In the first, those who spoke German were viewed as lesser lawyers because obviously some of their brain which should have been devoted to law was taken up by German. In the second, those who did not speak German referred to those who did as "cultural lawyers." Roughly the same thing - people who would not have a legal practice based solely on their legal abilities. We are a very well defended people when it comes to justifying our unwillingness to learn foreign languages. Personally, I find I write clearer contracts because of 1) having to write them for people who speak English as a second language, and 2) a command - more or less - of German grammar makes me more aware of how an English sentence works; also of where misunderstandings might arise. For example, when faced with using as, since
    or because, I pick because. As and since have other meanings. Does not make for great prose, but what contract is more enforceable because it makes great reading. A Lufthansa manager just commented to me that English usage was not fully adopted by his company, but OTHER issues created more tensions that English capability. Such as who worked at HQ and who got German benefits. Back to the topic - I used to think my German clients were offensive to their US counterparts because of language difficulties. Later I discovered it has more to do with style than language. Germans are simply MORE DIRECT!
    • Ameer Haider
    • PhD student, University Selangor
    Great insight about an issue which is bound to further escalate as more Asian countries get on the global business stage. I am pursuing my PhD in business continuity management in Malaysia and language is one of the areas I have observed to be important in this new management domain, as well. I feel that there are numerous psychological and cultural/social factors at play also in this language issue. Maybe a research conducted over a longer period on the same groups along with progressive inclusion of newer individuals, can be had. This will help us connect from an organizational dynamics perspective in much clearer manner.