How business can learn from the polylingual family: interaction is key

The polylingual family as an intercultural organisation.

Familie tobt gemeinsam am Strand

With globalisation, businesses are expanding and taking into consideration the importance of their cultural and language diversity. As a starting point to support and encourage this development, it might be best to look at an existing intercultural organisation: the polylingual family.

Are you a part of, or know someone who has a bi, tri or even quadrilingual family? A growing phenomenon is the family who holds different national passports. When people spend long periods of time in other cultures because of work, the likelihood of having a partner from, or raising children in another culture increases. Maybe you have heard conversations along these lines: “I met my Peruvian wife while working abroad.” “Our son spent the first four years of his life in Korea.” “I know a family where the father speaks German with the children, while the mother speaks English and the grandparents Turkish.”

The families showcased in this BBC article are the best example of the insight that, yes, it can be done! Several languages under one roof cannot only work but can even contribute to a plethora of long-term advantages in social, educational and professional development. These advantages of having many cultures in one household can apply to the growing diversity within businesses, too.

Businesses can also look to the polylingual family for understanding how to overcome intercultural challenges. Some people assume the child of multilingual parents will simply “absorb” accent-free fluency. This is not the case. Think of the second generation who has heard their mom talking to their grandma in Croatian but might not speak it themselves. Listening is a good start, but it’s not enough.

So, how does it work? The key is interaction. Lots and lots of interaction. Interaction can be boiled down to listening and speaking. And this can take all different forms – singing songs, participative storytelling or even Skype dates with other family members. We’ve learned that successfully developing multilingual skills directly relates to a balance of listening and speaking. In language pedagogy, we call this passive and active language use.

This lesson can be applied to developing an understanding within international companies looking to bring employees from different cultures together. Simply exposing a team to English or other nationalities doesn’t increase fluency and cultural understanding. A clear structure that invites a mixtures of passive and active language will go a long way towards increasing cultural and linguistic understanding. It is through interaction that international teams can benefit from one another when it comes to language and culture. Listen and give them time to speak.

By Chrystal K.