Multilingualism: A Mercedes-Benz Story

Unlike the new Jurassic Park movies, this blog post isn’t another example of aggressive Mercedes-Benz marketing. Instead, I will be discussing language issues in the new corporate world by touching upon my own personal experience.

The phenomenon of globalisation means that it is possible for an increasing number of companies to engage with markets in countries which do not share their language. For these multinational corporations (MNCs), language can be a barrier, resource or source of power. In an attempt to deal with this, MNCs often apply a variety of tactics. As outlined by Thomas, these include combinations of a common corporate language, parent company language and the local language. 

I am going to discuss some language issues that companies face by framing it within my own experience working at an MNC here in Maastricht. Daimler AG operates an international office that provides services for Mercedes-Benz customers throughout Europe. The emphasis is very much on the international as the office provides services for all countries in Europe and an expanding number of countries across the globe. Language is therefore an important issue that must be dealt with appropriately by these companies.

Could you repeat that please?

Thomas emphasises that a common issue associated with language use within MNCs is the cultural element, or rather the lack of it, and how this can lead to communication issues. There are two ways in which this can play out, external interactions with individuals outside of the company (customers, local suppliers, local governments) and internal interactions (between employees, both at the same hierarchy and between hierarchy levels).

One way in which Mercedes-Benz handles the issues of multiple languages working closely together is that the different nationalities are very compartmentalised. English native speakers work in the department specific for the customers of the United Kingdom, French native speakers for France etc. All internal and external communication is therefore between native and native, as all operational managers within the office are also native English speakers.  In this way, the company ensures that there are no communication breakdowns as a result of a lack of culture with customer. 

In isolation, this system functions well, however it could be susceptible to the influence of external factors. In light of Brexit, it is likely that the office will struggle to recruit from the United Kingdom as the political uncertainty renders working in Europe less desirable. 

One method the office has taken to circumvent this is that many employees are being recruited from Ireland as they benefit from an EU passport. The cultures of Ireland and the United Kingdom are incredibly similar, however there could be room for minor misunderstandings due to this. One element of this is accent. Although nuanced, some customers may struggle to understand Irish accents with which they are not familiar with. Vice versa, some customers may belong to traditional English minority groups, such as Indian, Pakistani or African who have accents which Irish agents are not familiar with. Naturally in the grand scheme of things this is fairly minor, but as a company that considers itself a premium brand, this issue can play out on the micro level by creating incidents of miscommunication and therefore a lower level of service.

Sorry, I only speak English!

The other aspect mentioned earlier is communication within the office, and this generally has two forms, informal and formal. With regards to informal communication, Daimler AG has fostered a strong international sentiment within the office meaning that the majority of conversation unrelated to work can be carried out in English without inconvenience. Naturally however, the compartmentalisation of the office does lead to the ‘ghettoisation’ of language use that can be seen elsewhere and has been described by Wilkinson

Formal communications between the international offices are fairly limited and are reserved largely for cross-border situations and in these instances, written communication is almost solely used in order to eliminate elements of miscommunication. However, one issue is that this can add a significant amount of time to many processes, as the information needs to be passed through many more hands before it can be conveyed. The usage of external translation services such as Google Translate is also prohibited as there is a particular process that needs to be followed to ensure that the information is translated correctly.

This is a result of limited linguistic capital available in the office, i.e. individuals with both native fluency in one language as well as competencies in another. This is particularly an issue within the UK office as we have often been quoted as being the worst at learning a second language.

In the Maastricht office and many others of a similar nature, offices are often understaffed, possibly due to the fact that it is harder and more expensive to recruit native individuals and convince them to work abroad. As a result, stipulating language requirements is not feasible for many companies. 

Another potential issue is that companies distinguish language capabilities of individuals into categories to which individuals may not feel that they are able to relate to. Many Daimler job postings are listed as requiring a language at ‘Native’ level or alternatively ‘Corporate’ level. The linked page provides a nice example of the significance of language capabilities in determining which jobs you are eligible to apply for.

Naturally, if the job requires you to operate in German both internally and externally, it is expected that you have a high level of competency. However, would an individual who has learned German as a second language at a very high level, describe their abilities as ‘Native’? Similarly, the wording of language at a ‘Corporate’ level implies this is does not need to be native, but does it also convey that certain language tendencies, i.e. an ability to speak English at a professional level. Would someone who considers themselves competent in spoken and written English, but has learned outside of formal school or work situations, feel comfortable describing themselves as having ‘Corporate’ level English.

These are some examples of how individuals and companies can encounter issues with language, even at recruitment level. It also highlights how latent, or lower than corporate level, language skills are not necessarily utilised by some companies. Doye has discussed how using the language policy of ‘intercomprehension’ can take advantage of these abilities in order to facilitate communication. Despite this, it is clear that these latent skills can be difficult for companies to utilise without compromising on the level of service offered and that a firm company language policy is necessary in order to deal with potential issues. As discussed however, even with such a policy there are a variety of issues which can still arise.

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