Multilingualism and Economy

“Respect is the key” – Dr. Mara C. Harvey on Multilingualism in Companies

Dr. Mara C. Harvey © privatDr. Mara C. Harvey is Managing Director at the financial firm UBS in Frankfurt. She took part in the conference “Sprachen ohne Grenzen” (17th to 19th September 2009, Akademie der Künste, Berlin). Her topic was multilingualism in companies.

How important are languages for a career?

I would say very important – especially in a global firm where English can be considered a pre-requisite for a person’s career. It is often taken for granted today that most people speak English, but this is not always the case. What you have to consider is that there are many people who learnt some English at school but never really needed it for their jobs. They may understand when you talk to them in English, but when they have to express themselves or express a concept in English, it can be very challenging. And this is not only true for older generations.

You have a lot of practical experience in a multilingual company. Could you give any anecdotes?

The communication between German people and Swiss German people: Swiss German people are taught High German at school, so you would expect them to be at ease conversing in High German with their German colleagues. In reality, I have witnessed many situations in which Swiss people prefer to switch to English. They feel more comfortable speaking in a non-native language because they have a level playing field. It is a way of finding a comfort zone.

What other communication problems could arise?

We often notice discomfort among non-native English speakers when they are in meetings with native English or American colleagues, who are very eloquent. Native speakers often use certain expressions or anecdotes to really put their point across. This visual language is something that non-native speakers cannot match. Even though content-wise they might make very important points, they will not reach the audience with the same level of impact.

What is your advice for situations like that?

At the end of the day it is a mixture of expectation management and leadership. The person leading the meeting has an obligation to ensure a good moderation so that the arguments of the non-natives are really heard, for example by summarizing their key messages. In terms of expectations, I would advise non-natives to say, without feeling ashamed, “Maybe I did not express myself so well, let me say it in other words”.

So the key is openness and patience?

Yes – and respect! It is really a question of respecting the fact that other people might have brilliant ideas but are not so good at communicating them when language becomes a barrier. Don’t let the first impression be misleading.

What other impacts does multilingualism have for a company?

For the firm, there are a lot of implications. First and foremost multilingualism has a huge cost impact, namely in terms of translation services. For example, all internal and much external communication in locations like Switzerland or Luxembourg gets published in multiple languages. Developing operating platforms in different onshore locations in the respective local languages also has a major cost impact – not to mention the related complexity, especially when the character set of the languages differs. Above all, there are crucial implications in terms of Leadership and Change management, because each language is associated with a specific culture. The cultural context is even more challenging to understand than the language itself, and is a key for successfully engaging and motivating one’s employees as well as for communicating successfully with one’s clients.

Do you offer language training for your employees?

We do not offer internal language course, but we do collaborate with external partners to enable our employees to improve their language skills whenever it is needed. Mostly this will apply to languages needed for client communication or Business English.

So let’s talk about the many advantages of people from different countries working together.

Diversity! Actively promoting diversity can drive creativity in an organization, because it allows people to better understand the clients’ needs. Our clients are very diverse, so we need to fully understand their specific needs in order to fulfil them. So it is always interesting to have teams that bring in different cultures, languages, origins and backgrounds, also educational backgrounds. We do not only hire economists or people who have studied finance. Language is only one element among many which makes a company global. If one uses diversity constructively, it unleashes a lot of potential within a firm.

Could you cite an example?

Seven years ago, when I came from Switzerland to Germany, I was project manager for a very important change project. In Switzerland people are very used to working in projects, and you would just designate people for various topics and bring them all together, discuss actions and to-dos and people would go back and execute. In Germany I used the same approach: I contacted different people across the organization, explained our objectives and related actions required, asked for input and then assigned tasks and deadlines. However I realized that people were slow to execute and when following up I realized that there was a huge difference in terms of acceptance of project structures (non-hierarchic). In Germany this did not work as well in the beginning because the tasks assigned by the project manager were considered conflicting as they did not come from the employee’s line manager, People asked themselves: “Why would I take orders from someone else other than my boss?” This was partially a linguistic issue (my German was not so good back then), but above all it was a difference in culture. We resolved the problem with individual dialogue but also by involving more closely people’s line managers.

Mara C. Harvey was born 1971 in Reading in Great Britain. She obtained a Phd in Political Economy at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and speaks four languages fluently: English, Italian, French and German. After living for several years in Switzerland, she now is Managing Director at UBS Germany.
The interview was conducted by Franziska Schwarz.
She is a freelance journalist in Munich.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2009

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