Our lives at the Intersection of Japanese Language and Business - Why we started Avant Assessment
Featured JNCL-NCLIS member blog post by: Sheila Bong & David Bong of Avant Assessment
As businesspeople in Japan for over a decade we witnessed first-hand how language intersected with business – and all too often that intersection was a failed one for both the Japanese and the foreign businesspeople. When we returned to the US in the late 90’s we wanted to find a way to improve language proficiency primarily for Americans, but really for everyone. In language, as in any skill we learn, assessment is a critical element. If you don’t know where you are in your learning journey it is hard to know what to do next. If the goal of language learning is to attain a level of proficiency, it is critical to assess your proficiency, and not just your grammar or conjugation skills, as important as those elements of language are. As businesspeople, we believed that building a business was the best way for us to provide assessments that fulfilled that need.
Sheila worked for a major Japanese trading company negotiating joint ventures in biotechnology and other areas. As a Japanese speaker who had the role of representing her Japanese company, she frequently ran into situations where her counterparts on the US side were lost and clueless as to what her Japanese colleagues were really saying in the negotiations. When the Japanese said, “Yes, we will consider your offer” they didn’t have a clue that the Japanese were really saying “No”. She never actually encountered any Americans who had Japanese language skills or who had studied the Japanese linguistic or cultural perspective in advance. There was not just a lack of skill in Japanese, there was a lack of appreciation that the skill was even important to have.
Later Sheila was the Japan Managing Director for The Economist Group and worked with the leaders of over 100 major US and European multinationals operating in Japan. She provided advice and consulting services to them as they worked to succeed in operating their businesses in Japan. Time and again she saw how language became a barrier to successfully managing workforces, negotiating with Japanese partners, and fitting in with society for non-Japanese-speaking leaders.
David is also a Japanese speaker who led the first international investigative consulting firm in Tokyo. As an investigator, David saw first-hand how both Japanese and western firms were victims of frauds or extortions when their expat managers did not understand the language or the culture of their host country. In one case, the western leader of a company with large operations in Japan was assigned to run the operations of the Japan office with only minimal training in Japanese language and culture. Once in Japan, he surrounded himself with a team of managers who were fluent English speakers. These managers, however, were actively protecting their privileged position by suppressing the more competent employees below them who did not speak English well. These employees were hindered in their ability to communicate directly with the leader making it very difficult to demonstrate their abilities to leadership or rise further in the company. This led to frustration and anger, which manifested itself as a complex extortion plot against the company created by one of these employees.
The very essence of successful business is the ability to communicate effectively whether it is with customers, employees, or partners. Language and business intersect in Japan and throughout the world. Ignoring the importance of language puts a business at great risk. Engaging with language and recognizing its power can lead to great success.