Five Japanese Companies That Saw Results After Investing In Language Training
Rolling out language training schemes and incentives for employees as these Japanese businesses have can help your revenues soar in today’s international marketplace. Learn from these global success stories.
Today’s businesses operate in an increasingly globalized economy. Companies of all sizes reach out to foreign markets like never before. However, growing businesses encounter significant language barriers when staff can’t communicate in the native languages of prospective partners and customers in countries experiencing attractive economic growth.
One of the biggest challenges for international businesses to overcome to expand globally is language difference. Successful companies are finding that having employees who can speak multiple languages is key to executing business strategies. In fact, over the last three to five years, corporate language training has been one of the greatest areas of growth inside of businesses.
In 2009, it was revealed that Japan had the lowest English language skills in the whole of Asia, according to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) rankings. Only Laos ranked lower than Japan, and this came as a surprise to many of the country’s businesspeople.
At the time, Japanese business leaders most definitely recognized the importance of improving their standings.
CEO of Rakuten Inc, Hiroshi Mikitani, for one, is a big supporter of companies “Englishizing” in the territory, arguing it’s a key part of business. “If you want to become successful in other countries, you need to internationalize the headquarters,” he told CNN “English is the only global language. We’re doing a global business. I think this is the only way a Japanese service organization can become a global organization.”
Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo says companies need to realize the benefits of learning English to ensure they can keep up with the global economy. “Many Japanese companies don’t want to go learn English and become global because it’s a lot of work to change, but unless you only make and sell products within Japan, you need to become more global.”
However, not everyone in Japan thinks it’s a good thing for big companies to switch to speaking English in the workplace.
Microsoft Japan’s ex-president Makoto Naruke wrote a whole book arguing Japanese workers don’t need to learn English. “Ninety percent of Japanese don’t need English,” he attests. Instead, he suggests “the proportion of Japanese who really need English is about 10%…When I heard about Rakuten and Uniqlo adopting English as the official workplace language, I thought, ‘That’s idiotic.’”
Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, also disagreed with the Japanese firms turning to English, saying, “It’s stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese.”
In fact, Japan’s Finance Minister Taro Aso, said the country’s poor language skills were actually an asset in 2008 during the financial meltdown because when none of the country’s bankers understood English leading up to the subprime loan crisis, they avoided buying into the unstable investments.
Less Talk, More Action: Softbank
Years after the meltdown, however, Japanese attitudes are translating into business actions. Not too long ago a large share of Sprint was purchased by a Japanese mobile company, Softbank. When Softbank purchased Sprint their employees were offered incentives for those who learned English. Every staff member was offered a substantial bonus of up to $10,000 if they took an international English test and scored above 900 points out of a possible 990 on the TOEIC’s reputable English proficiency test.
Over the next three years, Softbank hopes that all of its 17,000 employees sit the TOEIC exam and get more than 800 points.
Major Japanese car manufacturer Nissan has also been offering its employees language training. The company makes what it terms “strategic hires” in which they consider whether the candidate will be able to take on globally-oriented assignments.
An employee’s ability to speak foreign languages is a definite part of the hiring process. Of course, Nissan has provided English training for its employees located in Japan; but they have also started to offer various online foreign language training programs to all of their employees and families. Meanwhile, they’re sure to provide one-on-one training to employees who are getting ready to take an assignments in other countries. Nissan even offers follow-up courses as well as tutoring once they have relocated to the new country.
The company feels that they are “investing in employees” by offering language training and that by expanding a person’s assignment capabilities they are creating a more globally-focused corporate culture.
Similarly, one of Japan’s biggest online retailers implemented a policy for employees to speak English in 2010, with the hope all 7,000 employees would speak the language by 2012.
Rakuten’s CEO decided to roll out the scheme after acquiring PriceMinister.com in France, Buy.com and FreeCause in the US, Play.com in the UK, Tradoria in Germany, Kobo eBooks in Canada, and after established joint ventures with major companies in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Brazil. All of these businesses use English as their main language.
So the company set about converting all its building signs into English – even the cafeteria labels its food in English.
CEO Mikitani said speaking English is a must for Japanese. If the company is segregated by language, it’s a disadvantage for competitiveness.
Just after the announcement was made, 200 people signed up for English conversation classes, offered for free by the business, learning language skills relevant to the worker groups – sales, marketing, IT and beyond – and the employees had an overwhelmingly positive reaction, saying they understand it’s necessary for their job prospects.
The new policy will also help overseas expansion and the business can hire and retain foreign workers. Schemes like this also naturally benefit English-speakers in the country because they can get promotions in the company without worrying they will be unable to communicate with their seniors.
In October last year, Japanese tire firm Bridgestone also adopted an English-only policy.
After discovering meetings and presentations went more smoothly when they were conducted in English rather than Japanese, they decided to roll out an English-only policy throughout the country.
Like Rakuten’s reasons for ensuring all employees speak English, Chief Executive Officer Masaaki Tsuya said the company needed to do it in order to make Bridgestone a “truly global” company. “We think this is the right way to go,” Tsuya said. “Especially for our young employees, we’re going to tell them that English is a must if they want to move up the ladder.”
Before the company decided to make the move, Bridgestone was already publishing many of its internal monthly and quarterly reports in English, meaning those who didn’t speak the language were unable to read them.
Fast Retailing, which runs clothing retailer Uniqlo, introduced an English-only policy in 2012. The company wants to employ non-Japanese people in half of the positions in the head office within three to five years, recognizing how if no one can speak English, communication will become a big hurdle for the company.
Tadashi Yanai, president of Fast Retailing Co. told The Asahi Shimbun in an interview: “Just think about Japan in 10 years’ time. People who can do their jobs only in Japan will not be able to survive…Japanese students must think that they are competing with students from other Asian countries.”
However, Yanai was very quick to specify that English will only be used for business conversations, with staff preserving Japanese for its thinking and culture.
Where Does Language Learning Policy Get You? Dollars and Cents
Interestingly, the richest men in Japan run three out of five of the companies mentioned above. Fast Retailing’s chair Tadashi Yanai is Japan’s wealthiest man, while Rakuten’s Hiroshi Mikitani comes in at number three, just behind Softbank’s Masayoshi Son at number two.
The proof is in the pudding, as the English saying goes: these three men do know what they’re talking about when it comes to the (monetary) value of learning a new language. If your company is interested in “Englishizing,” check out English Language Courses for Business from Language Trainers’, with native speaking, qualified tutors based around the world. Packages are also available dedicated to orienting relocating employees before and after they depart, as well as offering general business language courses to increase the international value of your existing staff.