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Give a Man a Fish

landscape photo of man fishing on river near mountain alps

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Though we should update it to apply to more than just men, the wisdom of this ancient proverb remains relevant: It is far more worthwhile to teach people to do things for themselves than it is to do those things for them over and over again.  However, as any parent and/or manager knows, it is often much easier to just do something yourself than it is to teach someone else how to do it. 

This is especially true when it comes to learning a language.  We know that people learn language faster and better when they work with content that is relevant to their interests, needs, and goals.  When it comes to upskilling non-native English speakers in a corporate environment, that means taking materials important for the workplace (e.g., safety regulations, international laws, customer reviews, trade magazines, training materials) and using those to create English lessons.  We have shown over and over again that this type of employer-specific language training is efficient, effective, and drives lasting learning outcomes.  But we also know that it takes more time than simply translating those same materials into the employees’ native languages.

This is why my team frequently hears from HR managers that they would rather just translate instructions and safety guidelines into the first languages of their employees than invest in English training.  Creating a Spanish-language version of the employee handbook seems far more straightforward than teaching your staff to read English so that they can understand the handbook themselves. But what happens when the handbook changes?  Or when the workplace needs to cater to fifteen different first languages. Or when there are new rules and regulations that need to be translated? Suddenly, creating multi-language versions of all employee communications becomes an unwieldy project.  So the handbook goes untranslated and the employee is left right where she started—unable to read English and unable to access relevant, updated information.

But what about workplaces that invest in teaching their employees to learn English?  Sure, they spend more time up front than those that simply translate relevant materials.  But they also get a huge return on their investment. Besides the obvious benefit of investing in their employees’ professional development and personal growth, these companies are also paving the way for upward mobility within their own organizations.  Instead of spending dollars recruiting and training new employees, they can promote from within, opening positions for incumbent workers who were previously limited by their language skills.

Yes—the initial costs of building a language learning program based on company materials are greater than simply translating documents, but the benefits are much farther reaching.  It might cost more up front, but language training is an investment in your employees, your business, and the future. Translating HR manuals is a stop-gap measure that quickly becomes obsolete.  Which one is a better choice? The world is becoming increasingly global, and bilingual employees help give employers a competitive edge in nearly every industry.