It's estimated that more than 1.5 billion people speak English. Of those, only 360 million claim English as their mother tongue. Though English is the most studied language globally, it can be difficult to speak proficiently. Phrases like "she wound a bandage around her wound" serve as a reminder that pronunciation, word order, homophones, synonyms and exceptions make English especially challenging for non-native speakers.
As the workplace becomes more global, eccentricities of the English language can become a barrier to business when it makes communication challenging. For some employers, it may even be worth providing English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training to workers with a different first language to improve the overall culture, team building and productivity in their organizations.
Benefits of ESL upskilling
Katie Nielson, chief education officer of Voxy, sees many benefits to language-focused learning and development: attracting and retaining talent and improving productivity and growth are a few. "But there's an upside to language learning benefits," she told HR Dive in an email. "Language learning gives companies the unique ability to promote workers from within to fill vacant roles, surfacing all new talent pools that would otherwise be out of reach in such a tight labor market."
Upskilling English language skills, she said, for incumbent workers offers loyal, tenured staff the tools to unlock their upward mobility. In the process, the organization avoids costly cycles of recruiting, hiring and on-boarding outside talent.
"Language upskilling provides associates with the opportunity to grow skills that are not only valuable in their job, but also for their life," according to Ben Bekhor, CHRO, Americas, Sitel Group. Upskilling in language helps workers in areas like customer care, client services, listening and problem solving — skills that can accelerate their careers, he added.
Rolling out ESL training programs
Paul Mastrangelo, principal strategist at CultureIQ, said there are two different common scenarios for ESL upskilling. Many entry-level jobs in the U.S. employ workers whose primary language isn't English. "Investing in these workers might be perceived as a work benefit that attracts and retains that population," Mastrangelo told HR Dive. Others may be highly skilled workers from outside the U.S. for whom ESL upskilling — or upskilling in the grammatical differences between American English and English spoken in the U.K. — may be part of management development or preparation for an expatriate experience.
Bekhor cites a program Sitel uses in Nicaragua called FLIP (free language improvement program), which offers free training to improve English language skills and employs in-house language specialists who create ongoing language development plans. "They work with our associates who may be struggling with certain language components, such as comprehension," Bekhor wrote, "and personally work with them to improve their skills."
And the work setting may be an ideal place to achieve this, according to Nielson. "Learning a language is often perceived as an insurmountable task, but research suggests that on-the-job learning is one of the best ways to acquire new language skills," she said. Learning English without context can be difficult, she added, but the workplace can be the ideal place for instruction that accelerates learning.
When ESL upskilling is most critical
Upskilling English language proficiency is the right choice for employers with local roots or a global reach, Bekhor said. Because shared language promotes connections and community, this can translate to a culture of inclusion and common goals for employers. "While implementing language upskilling programs is not inexpensive," he added, "it shows a company's dedication to creating an environment of customer satisfaction that also leads to employee satisfaction and retention."
Mastrangelo said there are many ways language upskilling benefits business. One crucial situation is when highly valuable and difficult-to-replace employees value talent development. If their jobs require or benefit from a multilingual component, Mastrangelo said, it's a win-win. "The industry also matters," he noted. "For example, travel and hospitality staff who are able to speak multiple languages would be helpful for customer satisfaction and retention, particularly in tourist and business destinations."
Scale and growth might continue to be top-of-mind considerations for employers considering offering ESL upskilling, too: "Particularly in the customer experience management industry," Bekhor said, "our clients' requirements continue to grow and expand in new markets, so arming our associates with the language tools they need to best serve our clients is essential."