The Value of Multilingual Executives Today

by Christine C. Bitoon

A third of Singapore’s workforce is composed of foreigners. Add to that the fact that the country’s citizens speak different languages, and what you get is a multilingual country. Singapore recognizes four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. This reflects the rich culture and the diverse practices that its citizens have. To put it simply, Singapore is the perfect example of a global stage in which the movers and shakers are speakers of different languages.

What then is the value of a multilingual executive in a company, especially in Singapore? Will it make a difference to put bi- or multilingual people in manager jobs, or will skill and experience suffice? That will depend mainly on the company’s goals. Is it geared towards globalization, reaching other countries or merging with firms in overseas locations? Or is it focused on building business in the country alone? If the company aims to build an international market, then the HR department should consider hiring multilingual employees, especially those in the higher levels.

That said, it cannot be emphasized enough that multilingual executives are very much needed in the corporate platform today. It is imperative for companies to hire multilingual staff at the top levels. Managers, directors and other key personnel are the ones who will deal with firms overseas, demanding from them more than just knowledge of the business and legal matters, but also the ability to communicate properly, eliminating misunderstandings and paving the way for successful mergers and closed deals.

English in itself is a challenge. For instance, the expression ‘to table something’ has completely different meanings in British and American English. In British English, it means that it should be included in things that need to be dealt with or tackled. In American English, it means ‘to remove it from the agenda’. When companies fill in executive jobs with English speakers, they should also determine the level of understanding that they have in both American and British English. More than the spelling differences, a lot of words and expressions may be confusing.

In addition to the ability to speak and understand different languages, being multilingual also translates to familiarity with certain norms, culture and practices of different people groups. This trait is as important as the ability to speak languages. If an executive bows to a Japanese senior from the waist with his hands on his side, it may be the very thing that will seal a deal, as it demonstrates high respect. They also prefer bowing rather than shaking hands, by the way.

Translation is an option, sure, but how much of the true meaning is retained after it is translated? Moreover, translating a document from one language to another may take longer than when you have someone who not only knows how to translate, but also understands the language completely. Lastly, the time you take before you get a translation may cost you the deal when another company gets to understanding the offer first. Multilingual executives can be indispensable assets in a company that is willing to get out of their cultural and language comfort zones.        

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