With the internet and social media connecting businesses across the world, time zones have become blurred and the working day more fluid. Hectic daily schedules and the increasing emphasis on productivity requires CEOs, managers and executives to plan and account for their time. One conundrum for businesses employing expats is how to help them learn languages in the most effective and time-efficient way.
French language learning is tough for executives who travel for work
Until 2019, learning French was optional for expats living in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Understandably, employers were keen to offer at least one series of courses as part of an expat package. But the experiences of globetrotting executives showed that in many cases, they could not attend classes. French courses not only lacked the flexibility professionals needed, but heavy workloads did not leave enough time for learning a language. Executives either dropped out or were asked to withdraw because they were not attending.
With no need to learn French for their work environment, and the adaptability of the Swiss market to offer English-speaking services, such as doctors, dentists, vets, mechanics, and so on, expats could live in an expat bubble for years without speaking or understanding more than a few words in French.
The Swiss Foreign Nationals Integration Act (FNIA) enforced in January 2019 made French competence mandatory, leaving professionals rushing to find a French course to learn French so they could renew work permits. Likewise, HR directors needed to find a French language school to help employees upskill or risk losing them.
For professionals who could attend classes regularly, language schools designed a traditional programme with scheduled classes, objectives and exam dates. This organised process for language learning allows professionals to pass their exams and obtain a "Language Passport" to satisfy Swiss authorities. They need never worry about French language requirements again unless they decide to obtain Swiss nationality, which requires new skills and the ability to make fondue in French!
Innovative language schools provide flexible training
By contrast, language schools wishing to teach French to globetrotting executives had to come up with creative, flexible and responsive programmes. Large language schools designed their own programmes, making investments to build language platforms and design flexible programmes. But costs for such programmes are high and not within the budget of smaller organisations or NGOs. Leman Language Services (LLS) knew that to enter this niche market we needed to get creative – and fast!
We built a partnership with Babbel for Business, the leaders in digital language learning, and developed a programme that would give CEOs, managers and executives the flexibility they needed in language training.
Of course, digital language learning is by no means the new kid on the block. When innovative language centres pioneered e-learning solutions in western Switzerland twenty-five years ago, it was to support busy employees unable to undertake face-to-face learning. Since then, technological innovations have opened new possibilities in digital language learning. Training materials that required specialised headphones and an Ethernet cable in the past are now accessible on a mobile device, and they are far more intuitive and appealing!
However, while digital language learning gives students the freedom to learn French whenever and wherever they want, remote learning brings a new problem. Do they want to learn a new language? Despite varied activities and close monitoring by the language trainer or HR Department, the learner still requires the motivation to study, avoid distractions and make progress. The changes to the Swiss immigration laws add extra pressure. Expats can no longer opt-out and failure to acquire a recognised language certificate could leave them with no job and a one-way ticket to their homeland.
Creating an effective language learning environment
For the highly disciplined student, self-motivation might be enough to reach the standard to pass language tests. But for other students, an effective learning environment could make all the difference. Here are our top tips for creating a supportive environment.
PROVIDE A LEARNING FRAMEWORK
When you set up e-learning access, it is a good idea to provide employees with a framework of all the components of the programme. Organise a meeting at the start of the digital programme so that students and trainers can meet each other. If you are organising blended learning with a face-to-face component, ask trainers to attend so you can clarify all programme and administrative issues from the outset.
Provide an outline of expectations, whether this is the amount of time students spend on the digital app or the expected level of achievement. Launch the training by setting up fun ice-breaking activities that help students to get to know each other and grow as a group. Productive learning happens in secure environments, so provide plenty of opportunities for students to ask questions.
GET OFF TO THE BEST START WITH ONBOARDING
Expect to receive many questions in the first week of the training. For students who are less experienced in digital language learning, it can help to meet online or face-to-face to provide additional support. Helping learners feel secure and well-orientated will have a positive effect on the whole group by minimising negative discussion that is not usually shared with trainers. Deal with any technical issues immediately; nothing is more frustrating and demotivating than to be held up by technical problems!
CREATE GROUP SPIRIT
Most people are social, so create solutions for group support activities and peer support activities online. Just like in the classroom, students need to identify as a team and grow together, learning to support one another, as well as solve problems together. Working as a group will also help learners to stay motivated and engaged. Peer support and peer pressure – in the sense that students feel pressured to catch up because they don’t want to be the weak link – are key to this process.
Ask the group to name a leader who will coordinate activities and challenges. This can include posting language challenges on a forum and creating a closed Facebook group. The group should be given the opportunity to become autonomous and to only reach out to trainers when necessary. Just like in a traditional classroom, overbearing trainers can hinder the group’s motivation.
ENCOURAGE HABIT FORMATION
Human beings are creatures of habit. Forming a new habit takes repetition, motivation and endurance. Encourage strategies and methodologies that will support habit formation with your learners, such as integrating digital language learning in their daily routine. This can be as simple as spending 15 minutes on Babbel every morning or evening, before getting up or going to sleep. Our students tell us they "learn by doing".
FOLLOW UP TO KEEP MOTIVATION HIGH
Whether via app-integrated reminders or a learning management system (LMS), positive tracking and encouragements go hand in hand with results. If the training department gets too busy and the digital language training falls behind, chances are that most employees will lose momentum.
When an organisation has limited time or expertise to follow up on training investment, collaboration with a language training centre can provide the answer. It is important to identify a key contact within the organisation. Communication needs to be responsive during the whole training process to make sure that issues are handled without delay.
KEEP COMMUNICATION ACTIVE
Send regular updates and reminders with a positive message. The tone should be friendly, inspiring and motivating. If someone is falling behind or struggling, suggest meeting them for a coffee or lunch in an informal setting to listen to their difficulties. Knowing that someone is there to help can motivate the learner to remain engaged. Suggest a follow-up meeting whenever necessary.
SUPPORT PRACTISE BEYOND THE SCREEN
Reading and writing online is useful for a multitude of online language activities we engage in, but oral communication is the objective for most language learners, especially those who need to meet the FNIA language requirements. In the programme we developed with a client, we scheduled weekly Zoom language cafés to boost learners’ oral skills. You can also try online language lunches or online after-work drinks. Trainers don’t always know what students want and need, so listen to your learners and ask them!
Teaching French to the executive globetrotter is an opportunity to explore how language training can be integrated into heavy work schedules. With our innovative and tailored approach to language learning at Leman Language Services as well as our flexibility, professionalism and commitment to problem-solving, we will continue to support our clients to achieve results that meet their needs.
If you need to learn French to meet Swiss permit renewal requirements or you are looking for a flexible learning programme for employees to learn as a group, get in touch today.
Written by Lara Epiney Takache/LLS Director
Photos by Albin Hillert and courtesy of Canva