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The nuanced impact of fluency gaps in multicultural organisations

Language fluency is a term used to indicate a person’s ability with a language. More specifically, to be fluent is to be easily understood and able to express oneself fully. It has become more common than ever before to encounter people from various backgrounds and with various language skills, in the professional world. When there are consistent and frequent interactions with others of varying language skills, it is important to not only understand the deep impact this has, but also how to work together to ensure everyone is able to offer contributions in a sustainable fashion.

For many reasons, more and more businesses are conducting their operations in English. When a group of people with various fluency levels in a particular language interact, they’ll encounter what we call a ‘fluency gap’. In these situations, it’s not just communication that’s impacted. If people are not understood and supported, the effects can be detrimental to a business trying to maintain its competitive edge. Fluency gaps are not limited to language, however this gap is the most commonly seen and felt.

Lingua Franca

A fluency gap is often felt particularly strongly by employees with non-native fluency levels. This can be felt by them in various ways such as meetings, at lunch or other everyday conversations. A common example is when an employee starts in a role where the common language, or lingua franca, is not their native tongue. In these situations it is not uncommon for the new hire to be offered language courses by their employer. For a long time, the typical approach was to get the non-native speaker to adapt as soon as possible. While the intentions are good, this approach has an unintended side-effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere for someone learning a new role and a new job, while balancing their own life outside of work.

Diversity, equity and inclusive culture (DEI)

The more diverse an organisation, the more the fluency gap can be felt. Therefore it must be recognised and addressed. A team of people with various language skills are, by definition, diverse. With diversity comes different challenges, unique to each team. This is the same for teams made diverse by different factors, such as ethnicity, sexuality, and profession, to name a few. Now, some businesses may be new to working with a diverse cast of colleagues, while others may not see the need to do so. For this reason it’s worth offering a quick reminder of what we’ve discussed previously in our series’ on diversity, equity and inclusive cultures (DEI).

  • Inclusion, here, is defined as an active process of change or integration, as well as an outcome, such as feeling of belonging. Feelings of inclusion are driven by perceptions of fairness and respect, as well as value and belonging. These two build upon each other. 
  • Companies in the top quartile of ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above national averages. 
  • Organisations in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely to financially outperform their peers.
  • Empowering employees, particularly those in minorities, increases feelings of value and inclusion, leading to increased behaviour change and attendance. 
  • Organisations with inclusive cultures are more likely to have increased innovation, collaboration, better business outcomes and more. 
  • When not engaged, people forget 50% of what they learn immediately and 70% in an hour. A social learning approach allows people to avoid the cliché of “use it or lose it”. By engaging others in their learning process, individuals and teams can increase the effectiveness of behavioral change.

In brief, there are many measurable advantages to developing and sustaining a diverse workforce, equity within an organisation and an inclusive culture. DEI increases the competitive edge of organisations which mindfully engage in the practice. DEI practices and the fluency gaps that often come alongside it must be managed. Diversity without equitable inclusion will not last. When multicultural teams are left to sort things out on their own, issues will pile up and the team will be held back from offering their organisation the organic benefits brought by diversity, equity and an inclusive culture.

Organisational culture and inclusion

Before we go any further, we’ll re-establish the foundations of an inclusive culture. Inclusion is defined as the active process of including everyone. It is created when feelings of fairness and respect are built upon by feeling valued and a sense of belonging, all of which helps earn trust. This in turn also creates, for everyone, the opportunity to be their authentic selves. Furthermore, such a culture is one in which employee engagement is earned. Participation and collaboration are common and stakeholders are given opportunities for growth and development When a fluency gap is bridged, people feel included and valued, which helps motivate individuals to increase their collaborative efforts or go the extra mile for their team. Additionally, when a fluency gap is bridged and inclusion developed, there is a measurable increase in capacity for innovation, productivity, employee retention, customer satisfaction, and sustained diversity. 

Some of the negative impacts that can be created by unmanaged fluency gaps include interpersonal conflicts and diminished self-worth. Both of these often lead to individuals leaving for another job or at the least, a decrease in collaboration, innovation and feelings of inclusion. When someone isn’t able to express themselves fully, be it from fluency or accents, it creates frustration. When they are also not given opportunities to attempt to express themselves, this feeling is increased. These feelings also have a negative impact on an individual’s feelings of self-worth. Such impacts then spread outward, limiting collaboration, and therefore innovation, while also often creating interpersonal conflicts. In meetings, coffee breaks, or other common conversational situations, native speakers may unintentionally speak over their non-native peers. This is a common scenario which often creates additional conflicts. 

Tips and Tricks

There are, however, options for teams who want to limit or remove fluency gaps. With time, a few tricks, and open conversations, disruptions caused by fluency gaps can be removed while social cohesion is created in the process. Here are a few quick tricks to get started:

  • Offer support – Whether through offering language courses, informal practice sessions or open discussions, support can come in different ways. Such support should also include an aim of increasing cultural awareness. 
  • Increase engagement – Consider putting a structure in place to guarantee an equity opportunity to share. For example, in meetings there could be an explicit moment set for each individual to have an opportunity to share. This approach may work with many, but others may need to be coached, depending on how their culture views hierarchy and decisions making. 
  • Create cultural awareness – A structured meeting may work for many, but for others they may be less likely to speak in a meeting, even if given a chance. Understanding how each person views meetings, decision making, and hierarchy will give great insight into how they can be best put into a comfortable situation to share their authentic-selves and desired perspectives.
  • Be patient – With both native and non-native speakers, be patient. Behaviour change does not happen overnight. If someone also needs to learn a language, it’s going to take even longer. Adapting to, for example, structures that allow typically quiet or shy people to have a voice, can also be a slow process. When accompanied by patience and empathy, it will go faster.

Over the next few weeks keep an eye out for our Fluency Gap Whitepaper. In it, we’ll go further into the impact of the fluency gaps, why working through them is imperative, and how to do so. Additionally you can check out our recent whitepaper on DEI leadership by clicking here.

If you’re ready to start improving communication capacity for yourself, your team or your organisation, take a look at our communication and language training courses today!

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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