The Fluency Myth: Why Speaking Some Might Be Better Than Speaking Fluently

This is the seventh post in a series centered around crafting an effective language strategy for your business, featuring the work of Harvard Business School professor and former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, Robert Steven Kaplan.

Let’s conduct a small informal poll. An American head of a multinational corporation’s Possessing some language skills along with cultural sensitivity will help an organization more than pure fluency.Tokyo office is fluent in Japanese, having spent most of his childhood there while following his father’s military career. Another American, also the head of another company’s Tokyo office, speaks what can only be described as broken Japanese. It requires a lot of hand signals and pointing to get his point across. Which one do you think closes a deal in which they are competing against each other?

Now what if we told you that the first executive is known as an “American bully” around town, refusing to moderate his boisterous and aggressive natural style for his environment? Meanwhile, the non-fluent executive is known as a consummate gentleman and finds it hard to have time to himself because of all of the social invitations he receives. Does your answer to the question change?

Of course it does. Because fluency is not the be-all, end-all of international business success.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, professors Robert Steven Kaplan and Tsedal Neeley put it like this:

Language fluency does not equal cultural fluency—for either global leaders or their
subordinates. Too often leaders underperform because they fail to adapt their management styles and practices to fit a multicultural environment. For them, understanding the cultural background of each team member, the role of the company, its products and services, and the customers it serves within various cultural and regional contexts is as essential as learning to conjugate new verbs.

The good news is that both aspects of fluency can be taught – and more efficiently than ever. Language and cultural training can be brought in as critical pieces of an employee’s professional development. Many companies include it in development plans and organize whole leadership conferences around the cultures in which they are hoping to enter the market.

This all ties in with a webinar we produced featuring Professor Kaplan, entitled “Why Your Business Needs a Language Strategy” which took place on Tuesday, April 21st. Through this engaging, informative 30-minute conversation with Professor Kaplan, participants gained greater understanding about the role language plays in the business world, and how to craft their own language strategy.The webinar will be available on demand within the next few days. Please check back later this week for a link to the recording.

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