Why is multilingualism so important in the world of work?

Interview with Nicolas-Louis Boël for HR Square Magazine

31 October 2023

Several thousand languages are spoken worldwide, and many countries have more than one official language. In many professions, speaking several languages is a prerequisite, so, of course, it’s a major asset! Many companies encourage their employees to learn new languages to better meet their clients’ needs. Nicolas-Louis Boël, CEO of Altissia, speaks to us about this professional multilingualism that he knows so well.

A Life Dedicated to Languages

Born in Burundi, Nicolas-Louis Boël speaks five languages and has lived in a number of countries. Both his academic and professional careers have always been centred around international issues, languages, cultures and development. In 2011, he launched Wallangues, a project by the Walloon Region that enables all residents to learn the three national languages and English – a world first. Other countries and regions have since adopted this academic and humanist project. Brussels, with the Brulingua project, also offers a similar programme accessible to all residents of the region. Today, Nicolas-Louis Boël is at the head of Altissia, a group whose ambition is to offer access to language learning to as many people as possible.

Why is multilingualism so important in the world of work?

Nicolas-Louis Boël – Belgium is a small country that needs to open up internationally in order to grow and prosper. A large proportion of Belgian products and services are exported. Thus, learning other languages is essential. But, this is not unique to Brussels or to our country. In a context of internationalisation and digitisation, multilingualism has become essential throughout the world. More and more companies are encouraging their employees to learn a new language in order to meet their clients' needs.

Isn’t English enough?

N.-L. B. – Even though more and more people speak English, no, mastering Shakespeare’s language isn’t everything. In a business relationship, speaking the other person’s native language (and not just a shared language) is a strength. During the initial contact, being able to say even a few words in the other person’s language makes all the difference. The more you know about the language and culture of your future business partner, the easier relations will be. The UN and UNESCO, for example, recommend speaking four languages: the native language, a regional language, an official language and an international language.

Is multilingualism a sought-after skill?

N.-L. B. – Absolutely. With the development of globalisation, multilingual profiles are increasingly sought-after by companies wishing to operate at an international level or simply to bring diversity to a team. In Belgium, and more specifically in Brussels, there is a shortage of workers who are even remotely bilingual. Many companies and public services looking for multilingual employees are having trouble finding them. Vacancies remain open for a very long time. What's more, when young people are asked what's stopping them from finding a job in Brussels, language is often the first obstacle mentioned.

Are any languages particularly popular these days?

N.-L. B. – No, not really. Everyone always says that Chinese is the language of the future, but demand is still fairly limited. A large part of the demand continues to be for English, which has truly become the world's lingua franca.

What role do companies and their HR departments have to play in this multilingual challenge?

N.-L. B. – Many companies are now offering language courses to their employees, which is very positive. Employers should not see language courses as a cost, but as an investment. Of course, the employee will be able to speak an additional language, but this will also have a positive impact on well-being at work, recognition, internal mobility, attractiveness as an employer, talent retention, customer satisfaction, etc. In my opinion, the problem is that, despite the profusion of courses on offer, the results are not always proven. What is the objective of the training? What does the company need? For its employees to master reading comprehension, speak fluently and produce written work? In addition to general courses, other objectives should be specified, such as drawing up contracts in a given language, communicating with local service providers, coaching team members in their own languages, etc. Training provided in a professional context must serve the interests of the company. It is certainly not the role of companies to become training organisations or to make up for any shortcomings in the education system.

How can you encourage employees to learn new languages?

N.-L. B. – A company that needs its employees to learn another language must be able to motivate them to do so, which is easier said than done. Employers want their employees to learn the language(s) related to their job. But, learning a new language just for work isn’t always the most motivating thing. In the past, people learned another language to become bilingual. Nowadays, people are more likely to learn a language to do something, out of personal interest. So, the key is to convince learners that they will also gain something from it in their private lives. For language learning to be a success, you need to find common ground between the interests of the company and those of the learner. The challenge is to set up a project that appeals to both.

Should incentives be used?

N.-L. B. – Yes. Let’s be pragmatic here; it's often the incentives that make it work. These can be financial, such as bonuses for bilingualism, but also career prospects for higher positions, open only to bilingual or trilingual candidates, for example.

How can adults learn languages?

N.-L. B. – Language learning for adults is a complex subject. Learning something new, even if it's fun, is still a challenge. And it's harder to learn a language as an adult than as a child. It's even more complicated when you're learning remotely, hence the need for more immersion opportunities. In a professional context, the best thing to do is to learn the language while already practising it "as best you can". Daring is essential to progress. Learning a language is not just about acquiring vocabulary and grammar. Above all, it means immersing yourself in a culture that is not your own.

Are digital tools a threat or an opportunity for multilingualism?

N.-L. B. – They are, without a doubt, an opportunity! Digital tools and media content allow for ever greater immersion. They make it easier to learn a language and put it into context. What's more, new technologies are opening up language learning to as many people as possible.

A few statistics:

  • 104 languages are spoken in Brussels, making it the 2nd most cosmopolitan city in the world.
  • 7000 languages are spoken worldwide, and 24 official languages are recognised in the European Union.
  • 67 countries have English as an official language. 1.3 billion people speak English, making it the most widely spoken language in the world.
  • 60% of the world's population speaks at least two languages.
  • 11 is the record number of official languages in South Africa.
  • 50% of HR managers believe that young people are insufficiently prepared for the job market, particularly when it comes to languages.