Small Business
Business INSIGHTS e-News for Professional Services
What Languages Do You Speak?

Increasing the languages in which you offer services may help you tap new client groups.

About 20 percent of individuals living in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In some states, such as California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, that percentage is even higher. Although Spanish is the language spoken most frequently, Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog (from the Philippines) are also growing rapidly. For example, the Vietnamese-speaking U.S. population has increased 511 percent since 1980.

Benefits of a Bilingual Staff

No matter where your business is located, you may have employees for whom English is either a second language or a language they don't speak at home. Building a bilingual workforce can attract clients who may feel more comfortable interacting with someone who speaks their native language. Even if clients speak and read English well, having an employee who can explain financial information or provide customer service in their native tongue may increase loyalty to your firm.

Hiring When You Don't Know the Language

Hiring bilingual staff requires extra due diligence. There's a big difference between someone who studied French in high school and someone who is fluent. Since a person may be fluent only in speech, determine whether you need to limit consideration to candidates who read and write the language, too. If you're not fluent in the language, either ask another bilingual employee to conduct the interview with you or hire a bilingual job recruiter to administer a conversational and written test.

Tips for Managers

As a manager of bilingual employees, it's your responsibility to foster a work environment and culture that celebrates diversity. Let employees know that you value their contributions to your firm's growth and service.

Since it may not be obvious if employees speak, read or write in languages other than English, ask. If they were once fluent and are rusty, encourage them to brush up on their language skills. You might even offer to pay for a refresher course.

Express interest in your foreign-born workers' traditions, food and holidays. Perhaps invite them to post recipes of their favorite foods (or bring in samples) or to teach other employees a few key phrases such as "thank you" and "have a good day."


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