Language fluency: advantages and challenges for multinational teams 



Temps de lecture

5 min


Maria, originally from Latin America, speaks three languages daily: Spanish at home, French at the local shops near her apartment in Toulouse, and English at work. Many multinational employees, like Maria, must use their company’s official language at work, which often differs from that of their country of residence, and even their own native language. For example, Airbus in France and Volkswagen in Germany both operate in English.

In multinational teams, language fluency often varies significantly, affecting members’ ability to express themselves and engage in team discussions. Previous studies indicate that only about 40% of these team members are highly fluent in English, with around 20% having low fluency. This divergence not only creates challenges for interpersonal communication, but also influences how members are perceived and their overall influence within multinational teams, as highlighted in our recent article.

Those who mastered English gained more respect…

Our analysis of 249 French-based multinational teams in an organization that uses English as their official language reveals that team members grant higher status to those who are more fluent in English. They are treated with more respect and admiration for example. Furthermore, we found that even when other potential variables were considered – such as gender and personality traits – team members still granted more respect and esteem to ‘fluent’ colleagues.

To corroborate that our findings were not unique to this organization or to France, we conducted several other experiments. First, we conducted a study with German-English bilinguals. Participants role-played as multinational team members and received a voice message from a supposed new team colleague from Germany, using the voice of an actor. The actor recorded two versions of the same message where he introduced himself to the study participants as their new team colleague, one in perfect English, the other integrating mispronunciation and errors. Again, participants exposed to the flawless English version perceived the colleague as “higher in status” compared to those who listened to the error-laden version.

To check whether our findings were unique to English or whether they could be generalized to other official corporate languages, we then repeated our previous experiments this time in Spanish . We recorded two introductions in Spanish (again with the help of a voice actor from USA) and presented them to a group of Spanish participants (who were not bilingual). The fluent Spanish message was once again rated higher in terms of status.

Across these studies, we also found that participants who were granted greater respect and admiration due to their higher language fluency had more influence within their team. Specifically, they were given more time to provide ideas, the ideas they pitched were seen as higher quality, and they were more likely to emerge as informal team leaders.

Underutilized talents

Although our results reveal that language fluency can enrich multinational teams, we also uncovered some potential challenges. For instance, less fluent speakers may feel sidelined during team discussions, meaning that they may not participate equally, or their skills and talent may be underutilized. This is a critical challenge as good ideas can come from any member, not just the fluent ones.

Less fluent members may potentially censor themselves fearing ridicule for not being able to express themselves correctly. Over time, less fluent members who continuously stay silent may be seen as less competent, which may hinder their future career opportunities.

On top of these challenges for individuals, there are also challenges for teams. Language differences can create divisions within teams, with cliques forming according to fluency. Similarly, language barriers may lead to misunderstandings and slower decision-making processes. Such issues can therefore negatively impact team performance.

Fortunately, there are several ways companies and organizations can use our findings to enrich teams and overcome such challenges. Multinational teams need to realize that good ideas can come from any member, not just from fluent speakers. Therefore, all members should have opportunities to share their ideas. Creating an environment where every team member feels valued and heard is crucial.

Beware of glottophobia in the workplace

This involves recognizing and addressing any language-related biases that may exist, such as discriminating against members with certain accents. Organizations can fight against glottophobia—discrimination against other accents—with  different strategies such as, cultural sensitivity training, implementing language inclusive policies, and by encouraging leaders with non-standard accents to serve as role models for other employees.

Another potential avenue to explore is the use of translators or technology, so members can communicate in the language they prefer while the rest of the team listen in a language they can understand. Encouraging team members to share their thoughts in whatever language they are comfortable with can help to foster an inclusive atmosphere. However, if such tools are adopted, they should be accompanied by a change in the organizations’ culture. This implies creating an environment where patience and understanding are paramount, ensuring everyone can contribute fully without being marginalized for their language skills.

In the meantime, and until organizations can create a supportive language culture, HR services and departments should provide their workforce with training and continued language support so that all members can become more fluent speakers of the organizations’ official corporate language.

Language fluency is not just a practical necessity but a strategic asset in multinational teams, shaping team dynamics and performance. Recognizing and managing language diversity can therefore boost team performance and provide a competitive advantage.

Felipe A. Guzman, Associate Professor in Management, IÉSEG School of Management

This is a translated version of an article originally published on The Conversation France.

The Conversation

Category (ies)

Management & Society