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Why expat employees need language training and how to provide it

The modern workplace is heavily dependent on technology. It’s hard to imagine most businesses functioning without laptops, email and digital messaging platforms. There’s another technology essential to nearly every organisation that most take for granted, though: language. 

Language is similar to other technologies that have been invented by humans. We can use it to create concepts, conduct analysis, gain understanding and produce outcomes. It is a tool that helps us cooperate with others to work towards common goals—without it, the very concept of work couldn’t exist.

This is a fact that companies with expat employees need to be aware of. In a study conducted on the impact of language barrier on expats' performance in organisations, 67% of the respondents said that miscommunications due to language barriers created inefficiencies in the workplace; 40% stated that it hindered collaboration.

Fortunately, companies can eliminate these barriers and the consequences they cause by offering language training to their expat employees. This short primer will provide an overview of some available options and best practices to keep in mind when helping expats learn a new language.

The importance of language training for expats

Language training helps minimise language barriers and the challenges described above. However, it’s more than just a solution to a problem. It poses many benefits, too. For example, diversifying the skillset of your workforce.

Also, it’s fundamentally important in terms of cultural integration. Even a basic grasp of the local language can be very helpful in getting oriented, understanding one’s surroundings, making friendships and much more. This also applies to workplace culture and navigating professional relationships. 

Alternatively, the failure to do so can result in culture shock, which can have far-reaching implications for well-being and workplace productivity.  

Setting up a language learning program

Now that we’ve established the value of language training, how do you go about offering it to your employees? Here are a few things to consider first: 

1. Assess your company’s language learning needs

The first step in setting up a language program for expat employees is determining your company’s needs. Consider the following:

  • Who will be eligible for language training?
  • When will instruction take place? Prior to departure, during assignment or both?
  • Should the training be more generalised or focused on the language needed in the workplace and for business communication?
  • What are your employees’ learning goals and motivations?
  • How fluent do you want your employees to become in the language they will learn?

Regarding the final point, it’s helpful to have a framework to assess what counts as being “fluent” in a language. The most widely accepted standard for approximating fluency is the the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR)

There are six CEFR levels. Here’s a brief overview of them: 

  • A1 | Beginner: At this level, a language learner should know how to use basic phrases, introduce themselves, ask simple questions, and interact with others so long as they speak slowly and clearly.
  • A2 | Elementary: At this level, a language learner should be able to understand commonly used expressions, have conversations that are routine and transactional, and describe immediate matters in basic terms.
  • B1 | Intermediate: At this level, a language learner should be able to understand topics related to family, work, school and leisure; independently deal with situations during travel; write basic texts about personal interests; and briefly describe experiences, events and opinions. 
  • B2 | Upper Intermediate: At this level, a language learner should be able to grasp main concepts of complex texts like a technical piece related to their profession; interact with native speakers fairly seamlessly; write detailed texts on a variety of topics.
  • C1 | Advanced: At this level, a language learner should be able to understand a variety of in-depth texts and conversations; articulate ideas without having to stop and search for terms; have a command of language used in social, academic or professional situations; write well-formed and detailed texts.
  • C2 | Proficiency: At this level, a language learner should understand almost everything they read or hear, express advanced ideas, feelings and opinions precisely; be able to distil and explain information from a variety of sources.

2. Decide on a learning strategy

Once you know what your language learning needs are, you can pair them with an appropriate solution. There are a few different options in this regard. 

  • Language learning as an employee benefit: This option works well for companies that recognise the importance of language training, but don’t require their employees to do so. For example, international companies that have one official language for operations across all locations.
  • Formal language training: This model is suitable for companies that have specific and important objectives that necessitate knowledge of a foreign language. For example organisations that are expanding strategically into new markets or have sizeable customer bases abroad.

3. Find the right solution

Essentially, there are two main options when it comes to learning a new language. There are pros and cons to each; the “right” solution for your company will largely depend on your needs and desired strategy. 

Face-to-face learning 

The most conventional means of language instruction, face-to-face learning often takes place in a classroom, uses a teacher-led curriculum and incorporates learning materials like textbooks, multimedia, lectures and take-home assignments. Instruction can be individualised or done in a group, classroom setting.

Face-to-face learning is widely regarded as the most effective—if not the only—way to become fluent. Virtually no amount of self-directed learning can prepare you for actual conversation, which requires spontaneous and unscripted input from all speakers or interlocutors.

Additionally, body language and posture can heavily influence how someone’s speech and intentions are perceived. Without a basic understanding of what certain gestures mean, it can be difficult to effortlessly navigate a conversation. 


  • Can help you to become fluent
  • Exposure to body language and nonverbal gestures
  • No lag, delays or interruptions in technology


  • More expensive than online learning options
  • Less flexibility in terms of time and location
  • In group settings, pace of learning isn’t self-determined

Online learning

As of 2019, language learning platforms like BabbelDuolingo and Memrise have more than 100 million active users worldwide. Pairing conventional language instruction techniques with gamification, these language learning apps make it relatively easy for beginners to independently learn the fundamentals of languages, like vocabulary, pronunciation and basic conversational phrases.

The upside to online courses is that they can be accessed from anywhere at any time. This is ideal for employees with busy schedules or those who would prefer to learn at their own pace. 

As mentioned above, online learning isn’t as effective as face-to-face instruction when it comes to becoming fluent. However, in recent years, many such platforms have also started offering live virtual language courses. Most language instructors would agree that this is a step up from self-directed learning alone, though it’s still not a one-to-one substitution for face-to-face learning.


  • Ability to learn from anywhere
  • Pace of learning can be self-determined
  • Flexibility in terms of scheduling and location


  • Typically there’s a lack of group interaction and communication
  • Can be lag, delays or interruptions in technology
  • Can’t become fluent using an app alone

When looking for a language learning solution, you’ll probably notice that many of them do not conform entirely to the descriptions in the examples above. There are also blended or hybrid approaches to language learning that combine elements of both online and face-to-face instruction.

How to ensure language training success

Whether your company offers language learning as an employee benefit or requires formalised training, there are some basic principles you can follow to make sure your investments pay dividends.

Establish learning objectives

As with any new skill or goal, planning is essential for success. You can help your expat employees accomplish their goals of learning a new language by setting clear objectives together. For example, you can include learning milestones as part of their professional development plan. If your company requires formalised language training, you can measure their progress of their language skills when conducting performance reviews. 

Focus on flexibility and accessibility

Most professionals have very busy schedules. Unforeseen circumstances can easily create scheduling conflicts with existing appointments and commitments—including language classes. Make language training work for your employees; not the other way around.

When possible, give them freedom to choose when and how they take lessons. If you find that your employees are struggling to incorporate their studies into their schedules, support them in finding a solution.

Give recognition regularly

From improved engagement and satisfaction to lower turnover, the benefits of recognition in the workplace are manifold. It’s also a powerful mechanism for reinforcing positive behaviour and developing healthy habits, like learning a language. If you want to truly reap the benefits of language training in your company, find ways to recognise the hard work and successes of your employees—especially expats. 

It takes courage and resilience to live abroad, especially for long periods of time. On top of that, learning a new language is no small feat. Employees that successfully do both of those things deserve recognition. Even in small amounts, it can go a long way.

The bottom line

For expat employees, the personal and professional consequences of language barriers shouldn’t be underestimated. Language is the key to cultural integration—or, in other words, a sense of belonging. When abroad, expats are at risk of isolation and depression, which impacts well-being and workplace performance.

Companies can help prevent this from happening by providing their expat employees with language training. They can support their success in doing so by establishing a culture of learning, remaining flexible and offering recognition along the way.

Speaking of language, be sure to check out our article 7 tips for successful communication in a distributed workplace!

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