What's The ROI Of English Language Training For Your Employees?

Should you really invest in English language training for your employees? It’s a question that a lot of Learning & Development specialists, HR managers, and team leaders ask. It can be difficult for some managers to justify it, particularly because it’s tricky to quantify the expected return on your investment.

At a country level, there is plenty of research that shows how investment in English language learning elevates the overall economic status of a country.

At the individual level, there are also a number of interesting articles and research papers showing the benefits of investing in oneself. For example, individuals who speak exceptional English, relative to their country’s average see a 30% to 50% increase in salary.

Determining The ROI Of English Language Training For A Business

Given that Talaera is predominantly b2b, the question we get asked a lot is about how a company should try to measure the return on their business’s investment in their employees English communication ability.

The first thing to consider when determining the ROI of your investment is whether your desire to invest is needs-based or wants-based. Put another way, are you looking to provide training because you believe a set of employees have a specific need, in order to be more effective in their current role? Or is it the case that you have a number of employees who have a desire to improve their English but appear not to have an immediate business need?

Wants-Based

Let's address the latter first. According to research done by Pearson, “while 92% of global employees report that English is important for their career progression, only 7% of non-native English speakers in global companies believe they can communicate effectively at work - for example, when using English in emails, conversations, phone calls or meetings.” So although you may believe that employees want it but don’t need it, their perspective might be different.

In some cases, an employee may not need English in their current role but may be quite eager to transfer into a role with a heavier emphasis on English communication. Additionally, consider that improving one's English allows them to grow their social network as well as further their own technical learning (a lot of domain-specific blogs, research papers, instructional videos and the like are only available in English). All of these benefits accrue to the employee, but also to their team and your company. Lastly, there’s an obvious economic benefit to retaining good employees and to the extent that offering benefits such as extracurricular training, including language training, helps you accomplish that, then it may well pay for itself.

Needs-Based

As for the case where you’ve assessed an immediate need. There are a number of ways to think about measuring the ROI. To begin with, I would determine where on your company’s income statement you would expect the benefit of language training to have the most impact. Will this language training increase revenue or reduce expenses. Investing in language training for employees involved in more inward facing communication, for example within a specific team, across multiple teams, or with suppliers will tend to reduce expenses. Whereas investing in outward facing communicators such as customer service, business development, sales, and leadership will typically have a more direct impact on revenue.

Inward Communications

Consider for example a miscommunication between a software engineer and her manager, as a result of non-native English. A simple misunderstanding could cost the team a few days of wasted development effort. Not accounting for the lost opportunity cost of the mistake, the direct cost of one software engineer's time for a few days is likely quite a bit more than the cost of a year’s worth of private language training for them. That calculation alone may yield an ROI that justifies the investment, however, the real impact to productivity arises from language issues that are often a lot less noticeable.

Think about the vast array of business terminology, idioms and job-specific vocabulary that are intertwined into everyday communications at work. Even for a non-native English speaker who can converse in social settings, this type of communication can incur a price. The time invested in translating, re-reading, proofreading and having others proofread communications all add up day after day and accrue to the expense of doing business. Unfortunately, the impact of these frictions is not always correctly attributed to the language barrier. Instead, they are often attributed to an employee’s technical competence. This, in turn, has undesired consequences, which I’ll address a little bit later.

Outward Communications

Research from Towers Watson showed that companies that are highly effective communicators had a 47% higher total return to shareholders over a 5-year period compared to those who weren’t effective. Consider then the impact on potential revenues when a company has highly effective employees, whose ability to communicate is impeded by their fluency in English. Examples of this appear at all levels of an organization, ranging from Customer Service providing support to a valued customer, to a CEO seeking financing.

On the topic of financing, an informative study performed a few years ago by Dr. Laura Huang of Harvard, highlighted how non-native accented speakers are less likely to receive venture funding than are native speakers. More broadly, research in the Journal of Management suggests that people are less likely to choose a product (or are less receptive to a message, in general) that is described or delivered in non-native accented English.

A common theme amongst a lot of a companies’ outward facing communication is that they are often short – a sales cold call, an elevator pitch, a customer interaction and so on. As a result, the way in which the message is delivered is overweighed in its significance and when it is not optimally received, it can lead to lost opportunities.

The Cost of Unconscious Biases

A final point to consider when trying to assess the ROI of language training is to accurately account for the unconscious bias that has been proven to negatively skew the perception of an individual’s performance. According to a recent study in Human Resource Management Review, the relationship between a manager and her employee can be influenced purely by the employee's accent. A non-native accented employee is more likely to encounter bias in the perception of their ability. Furthermore, a manager can even assume a different style of management, based solely on the presence of the accent. The study goes on to show how this bias sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy that negatively affects an individual’s output and more importantly, career advancement opportunities.

This effect was also studied by Dr. Huang, with similar results showing that non-native accented employees are passed over for promotion into leadership/management positions at a disproportionate rate to their native English speaking colleagues. Employees experiencing any of these biases often leave their existing teams or companies in pursuit of other pathways toward career advancement. This type of attrition is exceptionally costly. It not only creates a gap in the company's knowledge, skills and culture but also deprives junior employees of mentorship and other knowledge transfer opportunities.

In Summary

Non-native English speakers make up a sizeable portion of almost every global company. To give a rough idea of the numbers, according to the UN, the number of individuals living in a country that they were not born in, was 258 million as of 2017. Of those individuals, 50 million reside in the United States. Granted, not all of them fall into the category of non-native English speakers and not all of them need English training.

Furthermore, although I work at an English language training company, English language training is not always the best path forward. Dr. Huang, in the research mentioned earlier advocates for training to help increase awareness and reduce biases. Numerous speech coaches and other language professionals argue that it’s not about vanquishing your accent but instead just making you a more effective communicator. I tend to agree. However, for those employees whose technical merit is overshadowed by a lack of English mastery, personalized English training that can be immediately applied at work is a good option.

With regards to addressing the return on your company’s investment, I hope the research and ideas discussed above provide you with a framework to help guide your decision. It's very difficult to put an actual numerical value on the ROI and even harder to weigh the opportunity cost of that investment. However, if any of the points laid out above resonate with you, it’s very likely that the ROI you will see from language training is actually quite high.

 

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