According to a 2017 National Skills Coalition analysis of data from the U.S. Workforce Investment Act Standardized Record Data and the U.S. Census Bureau/American Community Survey, about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce is learning English as a second language. Furthermore, as McKinsey reports, the digital economy means that even the smallest companies can now do business internationally. In fact, Traci Snowden, CEO of Apto Global, says that 66 percent of organizations need multi-national virtual communications. As a result, it’s more important than ever for organizations to make sure their employees can communicate professionally in English and other major business languages.

“Our research shows that conversational skills and confidence are key determinants of a business’ capacity to scale internationally,” says Quinn Taber, CEO of Immerse, a new company that uses a virtual reality (VR) platform to teach language. “Every hour invested into language directly impacts sales and long-term customer relationships.”

Language Learning at Scale

With language learning becoming a critical business need, organizations are looking to scale it efficiently. Because of this need for fast, large-scale training, traditional classroom language learning, especially the one-size-fits-all approach that starts with generic vocabulary like foods, is no longer an effective solution, says Katie Nielson, chief education officer of Voxy.

That’s why Voxy provides personalized English language learning. Using machine learning, the web and mobile platform offers lessons “based exactly on what it is that they need to do in English and then adapt to how those lessons work in real time based on how learners are performing,” Nielson says. The platform then collects data on learners’ activity for their managers and training leaders to analyze and use to make decisions. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research found that using this type of adaptive learning platform is correlated with better results than traditional training software.

“There’s a lot to be said for traditional language teachers,” says Jack Marmorstein, principal of language learning and communication strategies for Rosetta Stone. “There’s nothing like having a live human being, a live native speaker of the language, in the room with you.” But this approach doesn’t offer the flexibility of, for example, Rosetta Stone’s mobile e-learning and live virtual tutoring.

Language Learning Immersion

Then there’s Immerse’s platform, which Taber says provides immersion “without needing to board an airplane and travel across the globe.”

“Imagine,” he says, “walking around a virtual Paris with your very own French tutor, practicing buying a baguette, hailing a cab or popping through various exhibits at the Louvre, the whole while you are actually sitting on the couch in your family room.” Taber believes there’s no replacement for immersion when it comes to learning – and retaining – a second language. Like Voxy, Immerse provides personalized experiences tailored to learners’ job roles and work scenarios. “We … directly prepare them for each upcoming meeting, we role-play business conversations, we stress business terminology and terms of a contract, and [we] ultimately build their confidence so that they are completely prepared for the task ahead of them,” Taber says.

Apto Global is another company providing experiential learning to teach language, as well as culture. “Apto immerses language learners into authentic live action video from the first-person perspective,” says Snowden. “It’s the closest thing to being there and interacting with real life locals without the expense of travel and you can do it on your time. Immersive learning is the best and proven method of learning, but it’s just not an option for most. We want to fill that gap.”

Language Learning as a Benefit

Some of Rosetta Stone’s clients offer the product as a benefit for employees, says Marmorstein, even for employees whose jobs don’t require a second language. Many employees are looking for employers who provide not just a paycheck but opportunities for them to develop skills and advance their careers. “For companies, it’s not just about learning a language but about retaining employees [and] supporting employee needs – familial and professional – and ensuring success,” agrees Snowden.

“An organization’s reputation rests on the shoulders of its employees, and modern learning programs help offer a competitive differentiator,” wrote Rhonda Capron, then the dean of business and technology at Capella University, in an article on tuition assistance programs in 2017. By providing language learning opportunities to all employees, companies can not only develop globalization-ready talent but also recruit and retain that talent.

Language Learning, Simplified

One of the biggest obstacles to language learning in the workplace, according to Nielson and Marmorstein, is that learning a language takes a long time and can feel like an overwhelming challenge, both for learners and the training professionals managing these programs. Marmorstein notes that it can take anywhere from 600 to over 1,000 hours to learn a new language.

Nielson and Marmorstein believe the way to address this challenge is to conduct a needs analysis for each employee and then set manageable goals tied to those needs and their job responsibilities. Ask yourself, “Which employees need language training, and of those employees, what language training do they need?”, says Nielson. “Because not everybody needs to learn everything.”

Want to learn more on this topic? Come to TICE 2019, where Katie Nielson will be giving a workshop session.