As the range of people working in, and engaging with, your organisation becomes more diverse, you will likely have bilingual and multilingual employees, volunteers and service users (these are your audience, visitors and/or customers). You may work in a context where there is more than one official language and therefore it is a requirement to communicate in multiple languages. Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in two languages with equal, or near equal, fluency. Multilingualism is the ability to communicate in several or many languages.
Your organisation could benefit greatly from appealing to speakers of different languages. Benefits include being able to widen audience participation, drawing on expertise from source communities, practicing inclusivity, enriching your organisation culturally and networking with national and international partners.
Our expert, Dr Ruth Daly, University of Leeds, explains how your organisation can communicate effectively with speakers of other languages.
There are several steps your organisation can take to effectively manage bilingual communications. These include:
Establishing an open communication policy
Ask bilingual members of staff, volunteers and service users what your organisation can do to improve their experience. Using their suggestions will foster a culture of trust, acceptance and inclusion. Your organisation could implement an “open door” policy in which people have the opportunity to make suggestions, share their thoughts, fears or concerns without you needing to ask first. This can help your organisation to avoid issues of miscommunication and potential confusion among staff, volunteers and service users. Ideally, there should be an option to do this anonymously, perhaps by making use of a suggestion box or online survey, for example.
Establish support for bilingual staff, volunteers and service users
Your organisation needs to ensure it provides translations of company materials for bilingual staff, volunteers and service users. Employee handbooks, organisational policies and other important documents should be made available in English and the person’s first language. Depending upon your Local Authority’s available services, you may be able to access support in providing translations of key documents. Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that the top 10 languages spoken in England and Wales (2011) are:
1. English (English or Welsh if in Wales), 92.3%
2. Polish, 1.0%
3. Panjabi, 0.5%
4. Urdu, 0.5%
5. Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya), 0.4%
6. Gujarati, 0.4%
7. Arabic, 0.3%
8. French, 0.3%
9. All other Chinese (excludes Mandarin and Cantonese), 0.3%
10. Portuguese, 0.2%
At the local level, demographic breakdown will differ from place to place, and so using services such as Localstats.co.uk will help show the specific language variations in your area.
Embrace diversity and foster inclusion
Bilingual staff should be given opportunities to share their language and cultural heritage with your organisation. Ask bilingual staff members, volunteers and service users how they would like to share their heritage. Your organisation could also offer free or subsidised language courses or lunchtime conversation groups. This can help create an environment in your organisation where cultural exchange is encouraged and celebrated.
Make use of digital tools
There are apps that can make two-way real-time communication across languages easy. Google Translate and Microsoft Translator are just two options that your organisation could use to translate text documents, screens and other data. YouTube will translate subtitles into different languages for you. Google My Business – Manage Your Business Profile will make sure that information about your organisation is presented according to the language of the device user.
Greenhouse, a software company dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion have noted that:
Improvements in voice recognition and AI-powered neural translation make it easy to fluently converse with someone who doesn’t know your language – and vice versa. Whether you translate English to Spanish, or Spanish to English, the apps make the conversation fluid. They really do work like magic, facilitating business, networking and the free exchange of ideas with colleagues and customers
However, it is worth remembering that these tools are not, as yet at least, fully reliable for translating communications with your service users. Treat them with caution, but they can be very useful. Having volunteers with a speech to text translator is a great hack for welcoming international visitors. Likewise, they have proved a real help for deaf visitors when face masks made lip reading challenging.
The reflective questions below will help you determine how you can extend the reach of your organisation. You can also download an interactive document (PDF file 335kb) that allows you to enter your responses and save a copy to share with others.
1. Does your organisation already benefit from bilingual and multilingual staff or volunteers?
2. How can bilingual staff and volunteers help your organisation to reach stakeholders, partner organisations and participants nationally and internationally?
3. How can bilingual and multilingual staff and volunteers help your organisation to widen participation and engage hard to reach audiences?
- A guide to managing bilingual staff from the Centre for Culture Ethnicity & Health (CEH)
- The benefits of multilingualism
- Managing multilingual employees
- Improving multilingual communication in the workplace
- Staff training
- Cultivating linguistic diversity
- Using Welsh in your organisation
Please attribute as: "Embracing bilingualism in your organisation (2022) by Dr Ruth Daly supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0