Full utilization of multicultural resources seems to receive less and less attention in the current environment of economic pressures. Organizations struggle to survive, and staff members focus on retaining their job or finding a new one. Training is continuously reduced. The trend also applies to newcomer orientation: only the basic skills and safety regulations might be quickly reviewed or the task is left entirely to peers. This is common, even though the results of multicultural workplace studies repeatedly underline the importance of initial orientation.
First things to be cut often seems to be language training, including the local and/or work language of the organization - for budget reasons, and since “open language courses are widely available elsewhere”. In-house language training, however, is much more than just a language course. It’s a concrete signal to the participants that the employer cares about them, considers them worth development, worth investing in. Proficiency in local and work-place language is a key to wider learning, the full utilization of occupational skills, the membership of the community, mobility, career development, and also to external marketability when the circumstances call for it.
Employees without sufficient language skills, recruited and trained only for one specific task, are like cage birds, who have lost their ability to fly. For the employer, it is challenging – if not impossible – to find another task for these staff when needed: if the previous tasks become redundant, or when skills, motivation, or productivity no longer meet the changing requirements. If unemployed, the lack of local language skills creates a high barrier for a new beginning. For the society, the price is high. Even though there, indeed, might be a wealth of language courses available, they do not always meet the specific needs and communication style of work life. They also lack the special value of shared goals and sense of community that in-house training offer.
Typically, a significant amount of workplace learning takes place in practical master-novice relationships: experienced colleagues demonstrate hands-on, how the work is done. The two talk and listen, and together they build the newcomer’s work identity. Without a shared language this system does not work. Both parties get frustrated and may start avoiding verbal communication. From a multi-layered dialogue, the trainer may shift to simple instructions and commands to ensure that the basics get across. Under time pressure, fundamental differences in work practices and knowledge are easily overlooked. Misunderstandings and silence, sometimes caused by cultural differences, by respect or fear, go unnoticed and questions remain unanswered. Language proficiency is so much more than just talking: it’s reading between the lines, hearing silence, and the ability to read cultures. True communication simply takes time.