Hablas vielleicht un peu la mia language?
Systematically reviews the impact of language differences on the HQ-subsidiary relationship
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
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.
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
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.
- The many benefits of a shared language in multinationals
- Managing expatriates’ identity: subtle desire, big impact
- Language barriers in multinational companies
- Why is learning the host country language important for expatriates?
- Language in International Business: A review and agenda for future research
- Managing Expatriates in China: A Language and Identity Perspective
- Language effects in international mail surveys
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Copyright © 2020 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. Page last modified on Tue 8 Sep 2020 12:28
Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University, London and visiting professor of International Management at Tilburg University. She is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business, a select group of distinguished AIB members who are recognized for their outstanding contributions to the scholarly development of the field of international business. In addition to her academic duties, she also maintains the Journal Quality List and is the driving force behind the popular Publish or Perish software program.