Hablas vielleicht un peu la mia language?

This paper’s title is one of my favourites. One of the IJHRM reviewers commented: “there has been a mistake in the title as part of it is not in English”. He/she didn’t quite get the point...

  • Harzing, A.W.; Pudelko, M. (2014) Hablas vielleicht un peu la mia language? A Comprehensive overview of the role of language differences in headquarters-subsidiary communication, International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 696–717. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access!)

The management of human resources in headquarters (HQ)-subsidiary relationships requires intensive communication, but effective communication often depends on having a shared language. Hence, language differences can be a serious threat to the successful management of human resources in multinational corporations (MNCs). In this large-scale quantitative study, encompassing data from more than 800 subsidiaries in thirteen countries (see Figure), we investigated four related issues.

Thirteen host countries included in our sample

Importance of language differences

First, in terms of the importance of language differences, we found that HQ-subsidiary relationships are clearly affected by language differences and that the latter form a distance category of their own, which should not be subsumed under the related, but separate concept of cultural differences. Cultural differences between the subsidiary and HQ country are seen to present the largest barrier in the sample as a whole. However, as the figure below illustrates, this hides large differences between host countries.

Perceived language, cultural, geographical, legal and institutional differences for nine host countries

Language, legal, cultural, institutional, and geographical differences

In subsidiaries based in Japan and Korea, language differences are seen to be nearly as important as cultural differences and more important than any of the other difference measures. In Australia, geographical distance trumps any of the other distance measures. In Germany, France, Spain and the UK, legal difference is seen as the most important barrier. Ultimately, only in China and the Nordic countries are cultural differences unambiguously seen to create the most important barrier.

This illustrates again how – qualitative or quantitative – studies conducted in a single country provide a rather incomplete picture and why we need more comprehensive studies in a variety of countries such as our study.

Communication outcomes, methods, and solutions

Second, regarding the consequences of language differences for communication outcomes, we found that a lack of a shared language is associated with misunderstanding, conflict, and parallel information networks, all of which could harm HQ-subsidiary interactions.

Third, with regard to the impact of language differences on communication methods, we found that a lack of a shared language is associated with a significantly lower level of oral (face-to-face and phone) communication between headquarters and subsidiaries, but has no significant influence on written communication.

Fourth, and finally, in terms of a potential solution to communication problems caused by language differences, we found that expatriates can facilitate both communication and knowledge transfer between HQ and subsidiaries.

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A free pre-publication version of this paper is hyperlinked. As one of IJHRM's top-5 most cited articles in 2014 the official journal version is also (temporarily?) available as free access.